When the Uttar Pradesh Police burnt the body of the Hathras rape and murder victim, it marked yet another dark chapter in the lives of Indian women. That fire was one of impunity—the impunity of the state, the impunity of caste and class, the impunity of rapists and murderers. More than anything else, that impunity was of a system stacked heavily against women.
Like similar high-profile cases that came before Hathras, it is a reminder of the precarious lives Indian women lead, and how little progress has been made on gender equality. But this will not go unpunished. There is a price to pay. Before I come to this price, take a moment to think about the Hathras victim and the likelihood of justice prevailing in her case.
Within hours of her last breath escaping her lips, the government burnt her lifeless body. Her parents couldn’t touch her one last time, couldn’t hold her one last time, couldn’t kiss her one last time. Even as her family was grieving, there were gatherings in support of the alleged rapists-cum-murderers. The CM seemed unconcerned until growing outrage forced his hand. The PM couldn’t tweet a few words to soothe her family or reassure the millions of girls and women who must surely wonder if they are next. So much for beti bachao.
The mistreatment of women and the constant threat of assault is holding India back not just for reasons of human dignity and rights, but economic ones too. For a variety of reasons, including insecurity, women do not participate in economic activities as much as men do. According to a report by McKinsey and Company, a consultancy, achieving gender equality could annually add $770 billion to India’s GDP by 2025. This opportunity predominantly hinges on women participating in the labour force in greater numbers. The report points out that increasing India’s female labour force participation rate by just 10 percentage points would help realise 70% of this incredible opportunity.
The IMF estimates that India’s GDP would be 27% greater if women participated in economic activities in numbers equal to those of men. However, India’s female labour force participation (FLFP) has been declining. From a high of 31.7% in 2005, India’s FLFP is now at 20.3%. Only a few nations such as Yemen, Iraq, Jordan and Iran are performing worse than India. Some might point to cheerier reasons for this decline—more females staying in school and seeking higher education, etc.
But there isn’t conclusive evidence supporting this claim. Instead, as the ILO’s Ruchika Chaudhary and Sher Verick find, lack of representation and opportunity in high growth and high productivity sectors, social attitudes and issues related to personal safety are to blame. This omnipresent lack of physical safety is costly. A study by the World Bank’s Girija Borker found that women in Delhi don’t take up better education opportunities due to the risk of street harassment.
Borker finds that over 89% of students faced harassment while travelling in the city, 63% experienced unwanted staring, 50% received inappropriate comments, and 40% have been touched, groped or grabbed. Borker reports that women are willing to spend an additional `18,800 each year and 40 extra minutes daily in commute time on safer routes. Men are only willing to spend an additional `1,200. For women, opportunities come at a substantially higher cost.
Complicating matters further, the decision to work is not an individual one for women. For the most part, it is a household decision. You have to ask yourself about the impact of Hathras on such household decisions. Of course, there are many factors that may inhibit women from working (or encourage them to work). However, everything else being equal, Hathras hurts women’s progress and it hurts India.
There are no quick fixes to addressing gender inequality and women’s insecurity.
This requires a substantial transformation of gender norms in India. However, cases like Hathras are reminders of much-needed police reforms and accountability. Among other things, this can include greater diversity in the police force and other public institutions. In 2019, women made up less than 9% of India’s police force. Intuitively, it seems women may prefer to report cases of assault and harassment to female police officers. A UN Women analysis corroborates this.
Data from 39 countries finds a positive correlation between the presence of women police officers and the reporting of sexual assault. Deeply held societal norms must also be addressed. Starting early with children can help. School-based programmes can help adolescents recognise gender-based violence and positively transform attitudes.
There is evidence that norm-changing interventions are more effective on children—in particular, on young boys who are more likely to hold inequitable ideas about gender than girls do. Instead of facile slogans, India could do with school curriculum reform. After all, textbooks are filled with gender stereotypes as a study of NCERT textbooks revealed in 2017.
We can move on from Hathras. We can forget that innocent girl, the brutality she suffered, her family’s disempowerment, the impunity of men in uniform and the callousness of the state. We can forget the countless indignities that Indian women face on a daily basis. We can forget it all. But that won’t change the reality that our country’s future progress is inextricably linked to women, their progress, their place in society. While Hathras is deeply tragic, such tragedies can seed or advance meaningful change. But change begins with you. Do your part.
Salman Anees Soz
Deputy Chairperson of the professionals’ wing of the Congress. Views are personal