SOUTH ASIA: Challenging 'Cultural' Excuses for Gender-Based Violence in India

Monday, February 6, 2012
Gender Across Borders
Southern Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

For three months I have been living in the capital of India, New Delhi working on gender issues with UN Women, I have to say, never in my life have I been so constantly reminded that I am a woman. Here, I am never free of hints of India's culture and the patriarchal way that it perceives, treats and acknowledges women. Despite modernization and urbanization, each day I experience and see the effect of culture on women and the burden that they carry as a result of it.

Cultural excuses are used worldwide to tolerate or justify discrimination and violence against women. Indeed, most societies, even “Western” states, are built on patriarchal foundations, giving men the dominant and active role. Yet, some societies have customs and religious practices that make them more patriarchal than others. Traditional cultures, those that have been less integrated into globalization, tend to have more deeply entrenched social norms of what is to be expected of women in the society and in the household. In these societies where gender inequality takes broader and deeper-rooted expressions, females are left with little capacity to participate in decision-making and thus are more prone to be victims of gender-based violence. This is the case in much of India.

Culture, as the customs and social institutions built throughout history in a social group, defines a woman's role at three levels. First, within the family; patriarchal societies have traditionally attributed to females a bigger burden of household chores and as caretakers, whilst men have historically been engaged in remunerated activities. Yet, women do often carry a double burden, along with their household unpaid responsibilities they hold paid full-time jobs. These social roles have shaped and limited both men's and women's “natural” tasks and have confined women to economic dependency on men and put them in a disadvantaged decision-making position within the family. Second, in society, women have been deprived from public positions, and, due to their roles at home, from public spaces. The functions that women are given in society can make them more or less able to influence others at the community and national level. This in turn affects women's ability to reshape their social role and determines their bargaining power. Although history has shown that women in high political positions do not always translate into gender sensitive policy-making, denying them the possibility to participate at all levels of politics only reinforces the muting of their voices. It also legitimates gender inequality and perpetuates the patriarchal attitudinal factors that subject women to their arbitrary deprivation of fundamental rights. Finally, culture also determines the ability for women to have roles other than those related to the family thus allowing them independence. This is of particular importance given that traditional societies put community or family at the heart of their functioning and depend on the decision-making of the collective. This demonstrates how traditional practices can be in conflict with the respect of women's fundamental rights. Patriarchal societies grant men greater bargaining power, especially when women are not economically empowered. Therefore, if communities advocate for practices that deny women's individual rights and that females lack the capacity to stand for them, gender-based violent practices undoubtedly occur.

How is the above relevant to link cultural excuses for gender-biased violence? These social norms can make societies more or less gender unequal. And as we have learnt from Amartya Sen VAW is “one of the most brutal features” of gender inequality.

In India, gender inequality cannot be generalized, it is an extremely diverse country, where many women have taken distance from such traditional practices in urban hubs and others as attached as hundreds of years ago in the rural areas. Also, the social status of women is utterly different in states with higher education rates and, furthermore, some communities in states like Bengal, Kerala even follow a matriarchal system, as the Nair do, just to mention one example. Yet, the country has been, and still is, deeply shaped by religion in the private and public spheres. Many religions such as Islam, Buddhism, Christianity and especially Hinduism, have shaped throughout history both female and male mind-sets and mentalities, as well as social and cultural constructs.

One of the main Sanskrit books, the Ramayana, has been used to erect the patriarchal Brahamical system in which women and men are unequal. Whilst men are valued for their intelligence and strength, the Ramayana portrays how women should be valued for their purity, beauty, modesty, and reproductive function, but most importantly for their capacity to please their husbands. Women are therefore valued not by their own qualities but through their husbands. Indeed, Sita followed Rama to exile with absolute devotion, without whom she affirms her existence would have no meaning: “I could as well be dead. It will be living death for me without you. I am alive only when I am with you; a forest or a marble palace is all the same to me.”

Women who do not follow this model of virtue are often considered as immoral. When living in India you feel the effects of this; the stares received in the streets of Delhi openly condemning deviant behaviours such as wearing knee-length skirts, approaching men in the street, smoking or buying alcohol.

Nowadays, one of the most common practices of gender-based violence in India is the payment of dowry for a woman to get married. Even though it was penalized by the Dowry Prohibition Act in 1961, it is very much carried out in traditional and rural families. This is partially the cause of feticide as women are viewed as a burden for the family and not productive agents: it is more economically beneficial for a household to have male provider than a daughter that will consume the family's resources once she reaches the age of marriage. These structural behaviours are deep-rooted in both men and women's mindsets, which is why a grassroots change is unlikely to happen. Then, what is there left to be done?

Governments have a key role to play to tackle these ingrained beliefs and behaviours in society and to prevent the perpetuation oppression and violence against women. First, social reforms have to be drafted, laws protecting female against VAW must be enacted and there should be policies towards the empowerment of women. Also, governments should stress the value of women as individuals that have their own rights that cannot be shadowed by the community or their family members. Second, governments' initiatives cannot be limited to writing official documents, but they must include the processes and determine the means by which they are to be implemented and enforced. For this, gender responsive budgets have to be mobilized in a comprehensive manner.

Gender Responsive Budgeting and Planning help secure the proper allocation of funds to these purposes and they hold officials accountable towards their legislative engagements. Gender budgets contribute to the advancement of gender equality and fulfilment of women's. Studies on costing VAW have proven that “the costs of violence indicates that early prevention and intervention costs vastly less than does later-stage crisis care and other societal consequences.” But, over all, the human rights dimension of gender-based violence should be the primary factor to make a responsible budgeting mandatory for governments.

In India, the government issued a ‘Gender Budget Statement' in 2005, followed by ‘Gender Budgeting Cells' that have been introduced in 56 Ministries and Departments; the aim being to assess the benefits reaching women through the existing national programs and schemes. This initiative of mainstreaming gender concerns, including VAW, into public policies, still has a long way to go as it remains untouched by most public institutions and it does not have tracking and evaluation mechanisms. Even more, sensitizing a sub-continent and changing the course of its fixed customs is a challenging goal, especially when not including all stakeholders and local partners, or, even worse, when justice systems and the governments' bureaucrats are themselves gender-biased.

Anamaria Vargas is a 24-year-old Colombian who spent her childhood in Brussels. She returned to Colombia to complete her BA degree in Political Sciences and International Relations in Bogotá before starting her Master's at Sciences Po-Paris in International Public Management. Anamaria is interested in development communication and policy, intercultural studies, aid effectiveness and gender issues. During a recent internship within the South Asia Regional Office of UN Women in New Delhi, she extensively worked on gender issues in India, focusing on gender responsive planning and budgeting processes.