'For a woman's safety, mindsets need changing'

New Delhi, Jan 23 (IANS) The gruesome gang-rape and death of a 23-year-old girl in Delhi last month has brought alive the issue of safety of women in public places. But how safe are girls and women in their own homes?

For actual change to take place, experts say that "mindsets" need to change at a much deeper level - before a girl is born - so that she is not viewed as a burden and becomes a victim of violence or femicide.

Ruchira Gupta of Apne Aap, an NGO that works against the trafficking of women, says that while it is a good thing that people are talking about and measures are being taken for the safety of women in public places, an equal emphasis should be given on ensuring their safety in their own homes.

"Where should one feel the safest? In their home! But a girl faces the threat of foeticide before she is born. If she is born, there is a threat of infanticide, then malnourishment and lack of education unlike her male siblings. Then she faces the threat of child marriage; if she survives that there is the lurking threat of dowry related problems and domestic violence," Gupta told IANS.

"If she survives them, there is the danger of maternal mortality because of various reasons, like young age, malnourishment. And if she becomes a widow, she faces the threat of being thrown out of her own home. So a woman faces danger at many levels. The mindset change therefore has to be at a much deeper level to ensure safety of women," she added.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), violence against women have been on the rise in India, with a marked increase of more than seven percent between 2010 and 2011. Over this period, there has been a 27 percent increase in dowry-related torture and more than five percent rise in torture at the hands of a woman's husband and relatives. Civil society members say that the numbers are much higher since a large number of cases go unreported.

The primary reason why girls are discriminated against is because they are viewed as an economic burden, says Ranjana Kumari, director of Centre for Social Research.

"The value of a girl child and her productivity needs to be realised in order to not view her as an economic burden. This is what gives birth to the perception that because she has no value, she can be controlled. And when she refuses to be controlled, there is gender-specific violence, like dowry-related murder, honour killing," Ranjana Kumari told IANS.

"The entire socialisation process has to be re-looked at," she added.

When one looks at domestic violence, while government estimates put the number at 40 percent, NGOs working on the issue estimate that a whopping 70 percent married women have experienced domestic violence, and campaigns such as 'Bell Bajao', or 'Ring the bell' to stop this have thus been put together.

Sociologist Palash Kulkarni attributes such gender violence to the patriarchal mindset of the society. "Patriarchy is about the social relations of power between men and women, the former being the dominant one. So whenever the woman tries to assert her opinion, the man feels threatened and gets violent. It could be mental harassment, physical abuse or forced sex. Of course, not all men are the same".

According to a UNICEF report, India has lost over 10 million girls to abortions and infanticide since 2007 and there is a dramatic decline in the sex ratio. As per the 2011 census, the child sex-ratio has dipped to 917 females per 1,000 males, from 927 per 1,000 in 2001.

"This skewed sex ratio, especially in states like Haryana which has one of the worst ratios in the country, has obviously resulted in a dramatic fall in the number of women who can be married. With fewer women to get married to, men are now "importing" brides from states like West Bengal, Kerala and Assam; which is further encouraging trafficking of women," Gupta told IANS.

What's more, these forced brides are then expected to bear a son - keeping alive the vicious cycle.

"An important point to remember is that in issues pertaining to women's safety, men should be made equal stakeholders. There is no point saying 'Men will be men', and that 'Girls should behave in a particular manner'. This way you are again putting all the onus on the girl, and letting the man go without being accountable," opined Shirish Dey, an activist, in response to various political leaders' and spiritual gurus' take that women are to be blamed for violence on them because of what they wear or how they behave.

(Azera Rahman can be contacted at azera.r@gmail.com)

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