NEW DELHI (WOMENSENEWS)--The alleged gang rape of a 32-year-old Muslim woman, associated with the predominantly Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party, by members of her own community last month reportedly as punishment for her political affiliation drew international and national attention, and safety activists are waiting to learn more.
"This is a new kind of violence against women. Since the police are investigating the matter, we would like to await its outcome," said Kavita Krishnan, secretary of All India Progressive Women's Association, a group affiliated with the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation.
In her police complaint, the woman said she was attacked on April 29 at her home in Ranchi district, in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand, by a group of men who also assaulted her 13-year-old daughter. Her husband was allegedly handcuffed during the attack. She has been supported by her party leaders in the state who demanded a high-level inquiry as the crime appeared to be politically motivated.
Whatever the outcome of this case, the fear of violence by politically active women is well known in India and considered a factor in the scarcity of female candidates. Women were only 8 percent of the candidates in the national elections that began on April 7 and ended on May 12. Votes will be counted today, May 16.
"Over 60 percent of women do not participate in politics due to fear of violence," said Rebecca Taveres, the UN Women representative for India.
The gang rape charges came barely a month after police arrested some Congress Party office holders in connection with another case of alleged rape and murder of a female politician for politically motivated reasons.
In this case, the woman, a leader of the youth wing of the Congress Party in Latur district, in the western state of Maharashtra, had confided in her father that certain people in the party were hostile to her because of her promotion within the party ranks. In speaking with reporters, her father said his daughter had told him that once the elections were over, she would resign from the party and focus on her legal practice.
Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party, used this incident to attack the Congress at a rally some days later.
Risks of Violence
Forty-five percent of female politicians in India faced physical violence, kidnapping, killing, verbal abuse and threat of violence, finds a 2014 study conducted by the Centre for Social Research, a nonprofit advocacy in New Delhi, in partnership with the India office of UN Women, which is headquartered in New York.
"Some weeks ago, an Indian actress-turned-politician [who slapped a man trying to grope her at a public meeting] brought to national attention an important issue, that of violence against women in politics. Unfortunately, hers is not an isolated case. Many leaders across India face violence on a daily basis," said UN Women's Tavares.
Physical violence, verbal abuse and the threat of violence were much higher for women in politics in India than Pakistan or Nepal, according to the study.
"Violence against women in politics is usually perpetrated by males as demonstration of their power and superiority and to reinforce traditional structures challenged by women leaders," said Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research. She added that violence against women in politics cut across geographical borders and party lines and that character assassination is the easiest form of violence.
Safety activists contend that parties' willingness to back male politicians with criminal records had heightened women's vulnerability.
In 2012, several lawmakers were exposed for having charges of rape and other crimes against women, including assault and sexual harassment charges filed against them. Despite the revelations by the Association for Democratic Reforms and the National Election Watch--which examined the background of members of Parliament and state legislative assemblies based on their affidavits--political parties continue to field such candidates.
Female politicians from marginalized communities face greater violence, studies have shown.
Despite a quota for women at the panchayat, or local level of government, Dalit women--from the weakest economic strata--face violence and other obstacles as candidates from the moment they file requests for nomination to the time of election results, said Asha Kotwal, general secretary of the All India Dalit Women Rights Forum, a New Delhi-based nonprofit working towards empowering marginalized women, in a phone interview.
"We have documented cases where women panchayat leaders have faced caste and sexual harassment, verbal abuse and threats, physical assaults and even death," said Kotwal. "Dalit women face greater barriers because they are seen to be rising above their caste. Where there is greater assertion, there is greater violence."
Double Edged Sword
Kotwal said female quotas were doubled edged for women from marginalized communities. "The backlash begins from the moment she steps into politics. So unless there is protection, having 50 percent reservation has no meaning."
Most of the female politicians who become victims of violence are poor, lower caste, young women who entered politics, according to the study.
But senior female politicians are by no means immune. At a May 2 political rally, the former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Mulayam Singh Yadav, made personal remarks about the marital status of Mayawati, a woman who is a political rival from the same state. Yadav said he didn't know whether to address Mayawati, who goes by her first name, as "Miss, Mrs or sister."
In response, Mayawati, who is single, called a press conference to express her outrage. She claimed that Yadav was so afraid that his party would be defeated by the Bahujan Samaj Party, which she heads, that he had lost all reason. Mayawati was chief minister of the state until two years ago. Her party was defeated by Yadav's Samajwadi party in the last state elections.
Earlier, in February this year, Yadav earned the ire of women's rights defenders when, during a political rally ahead of the national elections, he dismissed a rape as a mistake committed by boys and one which did not deserve the death penalty.
Action can be taken only when this invisible violence becomes visible, said UN Women's Tavares. She said UN Women was supporting 65,000 female leaders for local panchayat elections in five states and were training them to demand their political rights.
"From our comprehensive review of laws on violence against women, it is clear that India does not have a legislation that deals strictly with offenders to prevent violence against women in politics," Tavares said. "We know that where laws are in place, prevalence tends to be lower and fewer people think that violence against women in justifiable."
Swapna Majumdar is a journalist based in New Delhi and writes on development and gender.