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It is estimated that 1/3rd of South Asian women experience violence throughout their lives and violence against women (VAW) is institutionalized through family structures, wider social and economic frameworks, and cultural and religious traditions.
This violence is largely overlooked by law enforcement agencies and is ignored by those in power. One in three women (35%) has experienced some form of violence during her lifetime – more than one billion women worldwide.
Throughout India, several forms of violence against women fit within the definition of femicide including domestic violence, honor killings, dowry deaths, sex-selective abortions, infanticide, domestic violence, and witch-hunting.
This article will focus on domestic violence, dowry deaths, and sex-selective abortions.
What is Femicide?
The term femicide was originally defined as the killing of women, but has been adapted over time to represent the act of killing women because of their gender.
In this sense, femicide is understood to be motivated by misogyny and prejudice against women.
For a case to be considered femicide, there must be
– an implied intention to carry out the crime and
– a demonstrated connection between the crime and the gender of the victim.
Several crimes against women that can be recognized as femicide include sexual murders, mortality resulting from domestic or family violence, and cultural or institutional violence that results in mortality.
Domestic violence is prevalent across India and is widely accepted as a legitimate part of family life by both women and men.
The most recent National Family Health Survey found that in India, 34% of women between the ages of 15-49 have experienced domestic violence at some point since they turned 15 and 37% of married women have experienced domestic violence. During the lockdown, Domestic Violence and Intimate Partner Violence cases have been doubled, as reported by the National Commission for Women (NCW).
Domestic violence is one of the most common sources of violence against women and is therefore understood to be one of the biggest causes of femicide throughout the country.
Dowry is a cultural tradition in which the family of the bride gives cash and presents to the family of the groom. It was originally meant to support new couples during their beginning of married life. However, India’s prevailing patriarchy as well as rising economic demands have turned dowry into a commercial transaction.
The dowry system reinforces discrimination against women, and dowry-related deaths continue to compromise women’s safety throughout India,
According to NCRB reports, on average, every hour a woman succumbs to dowry deaths in India with the annual figure rising upwards to 7000.
Dowry-related death is closely linked to a woman’s age at marriage, her education level, and her exposure to mass media. Within India, states with lower female literacy rates, higher rates of child marriage, and less access to mass media generally experience more dowry deaths.
The practice of sex-selected abortions prevents girl children from being born purely because they are girls.
The increasing availability of prenatal technologies means that families are able to determine the sex of the foetus and are choosing to abort female foetuses at an alarming rate.
An estimated 10 million female foetuses have been aborted over the past two decades.
About 6.8 million lesser female births will be recorded across India by 2030 because of the persistent usage of selective abortions, researchers estimate.
The practice, traditionally limited to educated middle-class families, is now spreading amongst the lower class and rural communities too.
What has been the government’s response against femicide?
There is a strong effort in all sectors of Indian society and the law to stem the tide of gender-based violence femicide and achieve equality between men and women.
i). The Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961 bans the request and payment of the dowry of any form as a precondition for marriage.
ii). Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) Act, 1994 prohibits the use of prenatal technologies to determine the sex of a foetus. Several states have launched vigilance cells to curb incidences of female foeticide.
iii). There is no legislation directly addressing honor killings and currently, the crime is dealt with under the Indian Penal Code or the Criminal Procedure Code.
iv). Women’s organizations have also worked to educate women on their rights and provide support to those who have experienced violence. Many NGOs across the country provide counselling, legal support, and livelihood programmes.
v). The reservation of 33% of seats for women in India’s local government has increased women’s political participation and has led to more gender-friendly governance.
What are some issues/concerns/challenges?
In spite of these efforts, femicide persists throughout India. The impact of femicide on Indian women and society is extreme, and current responses are failing to both protect women from violence and prevent violence from occurring.
i). A lack of funding and infrastructure to address violence remains one of the biggest roadblocks in the effective implementation of legislation. The lack of funding prevents law enforcement bodies from effectively carrying out activities required to implement legislation.
For instance: The lack of monitoring and supervision of the PCPNDT Act including inspections of genetic clinics and centres has meant that pre-natal diagnostic techniques/scans continue to be used to determine the sex of the child and abort girl children.
ii). Sensitisation of police personnel: Another critical issue is the response of law enforcement personnel to crimes against women. In many cases, the lack of training amongst law enforcement agencies means that police have little understanding of violence against women legislation, are unaware of their duties in responding to cases of violence, and are influenced by social structures of gender bias and discrimination when responding to crimes. This increases the risk of femicide.
iii). While legislation may protect victims of violence in theory, in many cases the penalties outlined within the legislation are weak.
iv). Furthermore, the implementation of these laws remains limited and in many cases ineffective in preventing femicide or prosecuting the perpetrators of this violence.
v). Tackling femicide is extremely difficult, especially given that gender discrimination and violence against women are so embedded within India’s social, cultural, and economic structures.
vi). There is inadequate support available for women who experience violence, and in many cases, their lack of resources means they are forced to endure ongoing violence.
vii). Multidimensional poverty poses a direct threat, putting cracks on girls’ safety in three major forms: discriminatory attitudes resulting in poor nutrition and health care; housework and care burden; and exposure to violence.
What steps can be taken to tackle femicide?
Responses to femicide must be comprehensive and involve the development and implementation of strong legislation, gender-sensitive law enforcement policies and protocols.
Awareness-building programmes around women’s rights are essential to addressing the underlying causes of domestic violence. Currently, only approximately 1% of women report incidences of abuse and many are not aware of their rights or legislation protecting them from violence and harassment.
Efforts must be made to sensitise police policies and processes related to the handling of violence cases. Protocols must be developed so that police officers know how to respond when women report crimes, and appropriate monitoring systems must be established to ensure these protocols are being followed. Furthermore, gender sensitisation training must become mandatory for all police personnel.
We need to strengthen support infrastructure by increasing shelter homes and improving medical facilities. This infrastructure ensures that women who wish to leave violent situations have safe alternative accommodation, medical services, and social support services.
Addressing patriarchy: Femicide cannot be fully addressed without tackling the widespread patriarchy and misogyny that permeates much of Indian society. Strong efforts must be made to engage with local communities, build connections with community leaders, and develop education programmes on women’s rights. These programmes will also have to educate men on the consequences of committing violence and will demonstrate that this behaviour is both socially unacceptable and a breach of the law.
Strong efforts are being made to educate communities on the importance and benefits of women’s rights, and women are becoming more empowered to seek assistance from NGOs and law enforcement agencies.
With further action and support from the government and civil society, Indian women will be able to overcome this growing violence and become an increasingly influential part of society.