A Picture And A Thousand Words: Holding Governments Accountable for Violence Against Women

Students protest the rising violence against women, Raisina Hill/ Rajpath. Photograph by Nilanjana Roy, used under CC Attrib. S-A 3.0

A poster issued by the Delhi Government in India, to raise awareness about cancer, says that “immoral sex” is the main cause of uterine cancer. The accompanying images are of a couple in love with a heart sign between them and of a boy following a girl in a short skirt with ‘hearts’ on his mind. These images convey that sex between two people in love is “immoral” and present an incident of sexual harassment as “immoral sex”. For a government held directly responsible for the Amanat gang rape case of 16 December, 2012, this is one of the many messages it has sent about how it responds to violence against women and women’s health.

The global media scrutiny of the Indian government, polity and society has been tremendous in the aftermath of the Amanat incident. For the international community, the gang rape in India’s capital city is difficult to grasp after the onslaught of analyses, reports and statistics that talk about the economic rise and growing middle class of the world’s largest democracy. But, as feminists have argued, a secure and prosperous state doesn’t mean a secure citizenry. In the context of the UN Security Council’s women, peace and security agenda, important questions about who is being ‘secured’ are typically not raised. Here I highlight how, in spite of their commitments to prevent and protect against such violence under UNSCR 1325, governments are culpable in exacerbating violence against women.

In 2008 when a young female journalist was murdered in the early hours of the morning, the woman Chief Minister, Sheila Dikshit had suggested that by being out in the night at 3 am, the victim had been “adventurous”. Such victim blaming and irresponsible statements from those in charge of Indian governance and security convey a mindset that needs to be interrogated at every level. Against such a mindset, feminist activists in India along with thousands of women and men took to the street in the immediate aftermath of the Amanat episode. There was a certain banality to the crime (the rape of women in moving vehicles is not new to the roads of Delhi); a certain impunity that the perpetrators thought they enjoyed (as they dumped the raped woman and her injured friend on the highway after their heinous crime). Much of the anger and outrage was targeted at an inept government and an apathetic state machinery and law enforcement. They have always been more interested in policing women as a preventive measure than in actually punishing the perpetrators and enforcing legal measures to bring the guilty to justice.

The protests in India, forced the government to set up a three-member independent commission led by the former Chief Justice of India, J S Verma to suggest changes to the existing law on sexual violence. The Commission pointed out the “failure of governance” as a major reason for sexual crimes in the country. It criticised the government, the police and even the public for its apathy, and recommended drastic changes to the rape laws. It recognised the atrocities committed by the armed forces and also proposed measures to prevent and punish violence against sexual minorities. However, the recommendations of the committee were ignored in an ordinance hurriedly passed by the government, clearly in the mode of damage control. The Government steadfastly refuses to accept responsibility and accountability in cases of violence against women and the fight in India for gender justice is far from over. Failure to enforce stringent laws and provide protection to women, poor policing, culture of misogyny within law enforcement, victim blaming and lack of gender-sensitive governance initiatives are problems that are identified with governments.  They fail to exercise due diligence by engaging in meaningful actions to prevent egregious violence against women.

However, there is another issue of governments and state institutions being directly involved in cases of violence against women. There are many examples from war/conflict zones where the culpability of governments is enormous. Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Congo and Rwandan governments in powers have all sanctioned violence against women at various times. In India the impunity with which armed forces rape and violate women as a result of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in conflict areas of Kashmir and the North-East has led to serious questioning and protests by people in these areas. The denial of these violent acts committed by government officials and armed forces is usually to enforce the notion of unwavering sanctity of state institutions. As I write this, news continues to pour in from Egypt about government-sponsored thugs sexually assaulting women to prevent them from protesting and from going out for work or study. Governments are also implicated in ‘peace time’ violence against women.

Feminist scholarship and activism must take into account two realities when it comes to violence against women: first of state apathy and gender insensitivity manifest in governments’ enacting anti women and archaic policies; and second of the direct complicity of governments and state machinery in raping and brutalising women. Transnational feminist networks on violence against women will be strengthened only when the scrutiny and critique of all states, without exception, is undertaken. As I have said elsewhere, naming and shaming governments should be an important strategy in this regard. Violence against women is not specific to any one society, culture or state-government. Sustained pressure through international bodies, global activist networks and civil society protests, as we have witnessed in Delhi and in the One Billion Rising campaign recently, can be instrumental in raising awareness on an issue of some urgency.

Swati Parashar

Monash University