Sunday, December 13, 2009

An aniversary of violence

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, December 13, 2009


December 6, 1992 will not be forgotten for a long time. Even if the memory of that fateful day, when the 400-year-old Babri Masjid was demolished, had begun to dim, it has been brought alive again by the passionate debate in Parliament over the much-delayed Liberhan Commission report and the scenes played out on our television screens of those terrible hours when the structure was brought down. That day the Hindutva proponents destroyed not just a Masjid but shook the secular core of this country. The emotional wounds caused by the riots that followed December 6 have never fully healed.

But December 6 has another meaning — for women the world over. On that day, exactly 20 years ago, a young man called Marc Lepine entered the Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal, Canada. He walked into a classroom where he separated the men from the women. And then he proceeded to shoot the women engineering students, shouting as he killed them, “I hate feminists”. In the 45 minutes that he spent on that campus, he also wounded 27 students — 23 women and four men. After this he shot himself. It was presumed that he was angry with women because he failed to gain entry to the polytechnic that had a policy of affirmative action encouraging women.

The Montreal Massacre, as it came to be known, was the trigger for what has now become an annual feature observed around the world — Sixteen Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, from November 25, International Day Against Violence Against Women to December 10, World Human Rights Day.

Violence against women has become so pervasive — not just in the public space but within the household, in situations where a woman might believe she is safe — that the issue has to be kept in the public eye. Thus campaigns like this, that link violence to human rights, are essential.

The latest reports from Afghanistan are an illustration of why such gender-based violence and human rights have to be seen within the same frame. Every other day there are reports from Afghanistan, not just of the never-ending war, but also of women being raped, assaulted and killed. Women who have accepted public office, women journalists, developmental workers — basically any woman who ventures into the public space is a target.

Poverty as violence

Women in Afghanistan face another kind of violence. Poverty and the absence of development is like a permanent blanket of violence that shrouds the majority of women in many parts of the world. In Afghanistan, a woman dies every 27 minutes during childbirth. The maternal mortality rate in Afghanistan is the highest in the world — 1,600 maternal deaths for every 100,000 live births.

War is another killer, of men and women. But in the war-torn countries of Africa, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, the stories we hear of what the women go through are blood curdling. Rape has long been established as a weapon of war by all sides. Literally thousands of women have been raped and assaulted. How will these women reconstruct their lives after the fighting ends?

The examples from other countries, horrifying as they are, do not diminish the disturbing reality in our own country. These 16 days should make us in India think whether “development” has reduced the extent of violence Indian women encounter. Ask the women in Kashmir, or in Manipur, or those caught in the fighting between security forces and Maoists in Chhatisgarh. Are their lives safer and more secure?

Poverty continues to kill and maim millions of Indian women. Like their Afghan sisters, an unconscionably high number of them die during childbirth. One reason is the continued practice of child marriage. An estimated 40 per cent of the world's child marriages take place in India. Despite laws prohibiting this, millions of young girls not yet ready for marriage or child bearing are forced into it as pointed out by a recent report titled “Gender Violence in India” by the Chennai-based Prajnya Trust ( The document makes sober reading and looks at six kinds of violence: pre-natal sex selection, child marriage and forced marriage, honour killings, dowry death, domestic violence and rape.

Statistics of the National Crimes Research Bureau tell us that the incidence of reported rapes is steadily moving up. These are only the reported rapes. For every rape that shows up as a statistic, we know there are many more that remain hidden.

(To read the rest of the article, click on the link above)

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