Day Sixteen |When the law against violence becomes violent

Rachana Johri, Bindu K.C. and Krishna Menon

Resisting Violence

Image of WISCOMP’s Resisting Violence annotated bibliography, reproduced with permission. Original art work by Linda Carmel

 

A critical question for feminists to ask when women turn to the law is whether a legal victory is always a triumph of the feminist worldview. Violence against women is ubiquitous in patriarchy. It pervades virtually all spheres of lives, happening most often in relational spaces. Without questioning the necessity of the law, it seems that the work of feminism must include a detailed analysis of the many moments in which women experience violence such as sexual harassment at the workplace and at educational institutions. 

Every violent act – whether it is a comment on the looks of a classmate, persistent messages from one student to another, or rape – constitute violence. Must all these be treated within a legal framework? And is ‘punishment’ the only imagination of justice? Perhaps more pertinently, does ‘punishment’ belong in a feminist approach to justice?

Feminists have had a rather contentious relationship with the law, and thereby with the state. In India, for instance, feminist campaigns have reposed great faith in the ability of law to initiate and establish equality and freedom on the one hand; on the hand, feminists have doubted and been skeptical of the very foundations on which modern legal systems are based. Consider the two moments where feminists in India have engaged with law – the Mathura custodial rape case and the infamous Delhi bus gang rape case. 

The Mathura rape case (1972) was undoubtedly a watershed moment in India; it signalled a radical shift in the focus of the women’s movement and feminist politics in India, and its engagement with the law. In 1974, the Committee on the Status of Women in India published its landmark report – ‘Towards Equality’ – and demonstrated an abiding faith in the ability of legislation to act as the major instrument for ushering in changes in the social order. 

The Supreme Court of India belied this faith when it pronounced its judgment in the Mathura rape case. Mathura was a sixteen year old girl who was raped by two policemen who were on duty.  She fought a courageous battle in the courts only to find that the Supreme Court of India cited the absence of injury marks on her body and her failure to have raised an alarm as evidence of consent for sexual encounters.  Following the judgement, sustained feminist campaigns resulted in many substantive changes in Indian criminal laws as passed in 1983.

In response the Mathura case, an Open Letter to the Chief Justice was authored by teachers of law at the University of Delhi Upendra Baxi, Lotika Sarkar, Raghunath Kelkar and Vasudha Dhagamwar. The letter represented a thrilling moment in the history of women’s movement and its long battle on the question of violence.

Thirty two years later came the Delhi bus gang rape case. This was a brutal and aggravated sexual attack perpetrated against  a 23 year student traveling home on a bus after an evening out with her friend. It horrified people across India and, indeed, the world.  She and her friend fought back only to be beaten mercilessly with iron rods, resulting in grave injuries that finally resulted in her death.  This incident resulted in  angry protests in the city of Delhi and elsewhere, compelling the government to review the existing legal framework – a process that resulted in further changes in the law.

Just months later, the Justice Verma Committee Report was released in response to protests across the country. This report laid the foundations of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 2013, and became an occasion for feminists in India to engage deeply with the nature of law and the crime and punishment matrix. 

Law is not static; it is best understood as a process that unfolds rather messily and haltingly. While the legal dispensation might nudge along progressive change, its ability to render justice remains limited. While the law might nurse implicit emancipatory potential, it harbours within it the seeds of what might be called a ‘carceral’ and aggressive feminism that is hostile to conversation, dialogue, mediation and conflict resolution. The power of the legal statute combined with a rigid and unimaginative invocation of identity politics, can result in nasty and bitter and – dare we say – violent use of the law.  What do we do when groups of feminists argue with each other, and use the power of law to settle disputes? Can the law, as Pratiksha Baxi asks, translate sexual agency and desire into juridical categories?

Feminists in India have reflected upon other conceptions of justice and indeed the impossibility of justice within what is essentially a masculinist legal paradigm (see also Menon’s Recovering Subversion and Sethi’s commentary ‘Why the Mahmood Farooqui Judgment is Deeply Flawed’).  It is this kind of questioning that has led feminists in India and elsewhere to value emotions and account for the specificity in each instance, rather than be guided solely by universalising frames and principles based on ‘reason’ and empirical evidence. Such an orientation towards questions of legality and justice  would be concerned with setting limits to the use of law. It would value friendship, compassion and relationality as frames within which to examine the question of justice. 

Do these two approaches have to be pitted against each other? As feminists we would caution against the setting up of yet another unfruitful binary. It is only through the difficult task of feminist engagement with the law, legal processes, legal institutions, legal education and the legal profession that the distance between these two approaches will be creatively negotiated. We see the sixteen days of activism against gender-based violence as yet another significant initiative in this direction.

Krishna Menon is Professor of Gender Studies, is and currently Dean of the School of Human Studies, Ambedkar University Delhi. Some of her recent publications include Social Movements in Contemporary India (SAGE Texts 2019), ‘The “Right” Music: Caste and “classical” music in south India’ in Discourse on Rights in India: Debates and Dilemmas (Routledge 2018). 

Bindu K.C. is Assistant Professor in gender studies at Ambedkar University Delhi. Her teaching and research expertise are at the intersection of gender studies and English literature.  

Rachana Johri is a Professor at the School of Human Studies, Ambedkar University Delhi, where she teaches psychology, psychosocial studies and gender studies. 

 

Day Fifteen |Understanding dowry and dowry abuse in Australia

Manjula O’Connor, Jan Breckenridge, Sara Singh and Mailin Suchting

dowry abuse

Reproduced from Shutterstock via The Conversation

 

The practice of dowry usually involves the giving of money, property, goods or other gifts by one family to another before, during or any time after marriage. It is a universal practice. For example, Bombay Island – now called Mumbai – was a former Portuguese outpost which was gifted to England as dowry in the marriage of Catherine of Braganza to Charles II (and was later leased to the East India Company in 1668). 

In its modern day avatar, dowry as a practice has different customary characteristics across different communities. Dowry exchange in South Asian communities is characterised by the woman’s family providing goods (including but not limited to money, jewellery, furniture and appliances) to the man and his family. In North African and Middle Eastern communities, dowry is characterised by the man’s family providing goods (predominantly in the form of money or cattle) to the female and her family.

Dowry is an ancient practice most frequently associated with India, but in reality, it is a cultural practice globally. This blog mostly addresses dowry in the South Asian context. Dowry in ancient times originated as a form of ante mortem inheritance, meant only for the bride. In modern times dowry gifts are expected by the family of the receiver as well and has become a practice that is a product of patriarchy reinforcing gender inequality. Women activists have campaigned against dowry practices in India since 1961, recognising the toxic impact of patriarchy combined with greed, and growing evidence of serious violence, murders and suicides associated with dowry in India. 

The Australasian Centre of Human Rights and Health (ACHRH) has refined the definition of dowry as ‘substantial gifts’ in the context of a marriage, where the value of gifts is out of proportion to the income of either family and causes financial distress to the giver.

Dowry abuse 

The United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women has defined dowry-related violence as ‘any act of violence or harassment associated with the giving or receiving of dowry at any time before, during or after the marriage’.

Money is power and like any power is open to abuse in an unequal situation. Dowry is one such practice. Where there is gender inequality and unequal power between the bride and the groom, the path to violence against women, dowry related death-murder and suicide becomes possible. In the Australian context, the unequal power relations are in some ways magnified because the bride is usually a new immigrant to Australia and often on a temporary visa such as a partner visa or dependent visa of the groom (the sponsor). The groom commands a higher dowry value in lieu of Australian residency. To this extent, the immigration process can allow the groom to gain additional power over the bride. In addition, the sponsor holds the power to withdraw sponsorship, leaving the new migrant bride vulnerable to abandonment and threats of deportation. 

These issues are often compounded by lack of family and social protective mechanisms in their home country and the social isolation that many brides experience as new immigrants. There is emerging evidence that some perpetrators collect dowry in India and leave the brides behind in India, never sponsoring them. The exact figures of abandoned brides in India is not known. Similarly, there is no good data available on the numbers of women abandoned within Australia, including those who are tricked into returning back home.

The dowry gifts are often particularly ‘excessive’ when compared to the income and assets of the family giving them. Although the demands are often unstated there is expectation that oversized gifts will be given. ‘Insufficient’ dowry can be accompanied by acts of violence towards the woman and her family, or other acts of abuse including emotional and economic abuse, harassment or stalking to exact compliance with demands or to punish the victim for non-payment. In this way, dowry abuse differs from other acts of family violence in that a number of individuals can be involved in perpetrating acts of violence, including in-laws, former spouses and fiancés, and other family members. To this extent, dowry abuse is a cultural manifestation of domestic and family violence, and also a form of financial abuse. 

Perpetrators can conduct sham and fraudulent marriages, extort dowry and abandon the brides. These perpetrators escape accountability by hiding in developed economies such as Australia, the UK, USA, Europe, the Middle East and Singapore. However, the abandoned brides themselves go through severe trauma, are stigmatised, may experience a sense of failure. They are sometimes rejected by their own family, cheated of their dowry saved over many years, left pregnant and must manage resulting mental health issues. Sometimes they are duped into returning back to their country after migration. They have no rights to residency of the developed country their perpetrator/ husband lives in and no laws to protect them in this transnational space. 

Two of these women travelled from India to attend the Second National Dowry Abuse Summit and spoke about their painful, harrowing experiences. The Summit was hosted by the Australasian Centre for Human Rights and Health and UNSW Sydney and co-hosted by Harmony Alliance, InTouch, Australian Women Against Violence Alliance (AWAVA), Good Shepherd, White Ribbon and South West Sydney Local Health District and held in Sydney Australia on 22 February 2019. The women – who felt voiceless and powerless before – both have been accorded residency in Australia as special cases. Their experiences highlight, the need for and value of, systematic support for women impacted by dowry abuse. 

Dowry abuse in Australia

Dowry abuse is perceived as a growing problem in some communities in Australia. The Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence recently found that it was a particular concern in Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, and, increasingly, in Middle Eastern communities; it is, however, important to note that it is not confined to any one ethnic, cultural or religious group. Care is needed in public discourse so as not to stereotype or vilify one particular group. Migrant diaspora communities continue to engage in the practice of dowry as a central marriage custom. Migration status can be used to demand higher dowries which when not fulfilled result in abuse and violence.

The Commission noted that the extent of the practice is considerable in Victoria. The growing concern of the impacts of dowry abuse gave rise to a grass roots campaign against dowry and dowry abuse, with a petition raised by the ACHRH that demanded dowry abuse be included in the Family Violence Protection Act of Victoria as an example of economical abuse. In addition, community participatory theatre projects and a video titled have increased the community’s understanding of the issues. 

However, it appears that there is very limited understanding amongst the police, social workers and the legal profession in Australia as to what dowry is, how it is practiced, and how it may be linked to family violence. For example, in the case of one Indian woman who was ultimately killed by her husband, her complaints to police about dowry appear to have been misunderstood and the seriousness of the issue may have been downplayed due to lack of cultural awareness. This highlights the need for increased cultural awareness and greater education about dowry abuse for service providers in Australia 

Responses to dowry abuse in Australia

On 26 June 2018, the Australian Senate referred the practice of dowry and the incidence of dowry abuse in Australia to the Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee for inquiry. The Final Report of the Senate Inquiry into the Practice of Dowry and the Incidence of Dowry Abuse in Australia was handed down on 14 February 2019. It uncovered the practice was nationwide and recommended to include dowry abuse in Federal Family Law Act.

This Inquiry was preceded by a number of achievements, including the petition which was tabled in the Victorian Parliament on 13 May 2014 by Former Premier Ted Baillieu; the 2016 Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence Report, which made a recommendation to include dowry abuse as a statutory example of family violence; and extensive media coverage on dowry abuse. The Dowry Abuse Amendment Bill was tabled in the Victorian Parliament in 7 August 2018. Seven MPs from Lower and Upper house spoke in favour, and it became law on 29 March 2019 (see Family Violence Protection Act 2008).

Next year marks the 25-year anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. The Australian government’s progress Report to UN Women for the Commission in the Status of Women meeting in 2020 includes dowry abuse as a matter for action – it is worth noting that Australia is the first developed country to do so. 

There has also been an increasing level of awareness and sensitisation to the issue of dowry abuse in domestic violence service providers nationwide. The Second National Dowry Abuse Summit adopted a Dowry Abuse Resolution. A national group hosted by Harmony Alliance the peak Migrant Women’s Network was also formed to further the national awareness and education program around dowry abuse. Most recently, on 8 August 2019 the COAG endorsed the Fourth National Plan to reduce violence against women and their children. In it, dowry abuse is noted as a complex form of abuse in culturally and linguistically diverse communities (CALD) communities.

Next steps

The current domestic and family violence and family law systems are ineffective in responding to the legal issues reported to arise from the practice of dowry, including financial abuse, exploitation of the family, and divorce, custody and property settlement proceedings. In addition, nationwide education programs are lacking for front line workers, the police, judiciary, domestic and family violence service providers, and medical and health workers. 

There is a need for more systematic structural support for people impacted by dowry abuse. Services and supports (including legal, health, financial, housing, employment services) for dowry abuse victims need to be improved so that they are more accessible and better address the complex issues faced by victims of dowry abuse, and in particular, victims who are on temporary or dependent visas. 

The Migration Regulations 1994 (Cth) contain provisions that allow for individuals on certain temporary visas to apply for permanent residency if they have experienced family violence by their sponsor. However, not all temporary visa holders (such as individuals on a tourist visa, a dependent of a student, or a dependent of certain skilled migrant groups) are eligible to access these provisions. This limits the ability of many dowry abuse victims to access residency and means that women in the above categories have no access to support services such as Medicare, Centrelink, housing rights and sometimes work rights. 

Compounding this, many immigrant women who have experienced dowry abuse feel unable to return to their country of origin due to shame and stigma. They may also feel compelled to not return to their families who have paid huge amounts for their weddings and dowries. Many women are also told by their families not to return, which puts the women at high risk of mental illness and further abuse. 

Evidence put before the Senate Inquiry also highlighted the intersections between dowry abuse and modern slavery (for example, sexual and domestic servitude). Service providers need to have greater awareness of these intersections in order to develop more holistic and appropriate services for people impacted by dowry abuse. 

As this shows, there is currently limited legislation and service provision to protect victims of dowry abuse in Australia. Whilst there is action, more work still needs to be done to ensure the safety, financial security and wellbeing of victims of dowry abuse. 

 

Manjula O’Connor is a Psychiatrist with four decades of experience. She is also an applied researcher and a published author. Her primary area of interest for past 10 years has been family violence and mental health in immigrant communities. She chairs the Royal Australian NZ College of Psychiatrists Family Violence Psychiatry Network and is Honorary Senior Fellow at the Department of Psychiatry , University of Melbourne. Manjula co-founded the Australasian Centre for Human Rights and Health in 2012 and advocates against family violence in immigrant communities. Manjula led the public dowry abuse campaign in Australia that led to the inclusion of laws against dowry abuse in the Victorian Family Violence Protection Act and triggered the Federal Senate Enquiry into dowry abuse. She is a member of South Asian Community Ministerial Advisory Council Manjula is a White Ribbon Advocate. Manjula’s work has been cited in the Victorian Parliament and the Federal Australian Parliament several times. Manjula was a member of the steering group that organised the Second National Dowry Abuse Summit. 

Jan Breckenridge is an Associate Professor, Head of the School of Social Sciences, and the Co-Convener of the Gendered Violence Research Network, UNSW, Sydney. Jan’s research is oriented towards maximum impact in innovative social policy development, service provision and outcome measurement of effectiveness. Jan leads an evidence informed knowledge-exchange stream ‘Gendered Violence and Organisations’ which provides expert advice to government, private and third sector organisations on best practice policies and organisational response to employees and the management of customers affected by domestic and family violence, sexual assault and sexual harassment. Jan was a member of the steering group that organised the Second National Dowry Abuse Summit. 

Sara Singh Sara Singh is a Research Assistant at the Gendered Violence Research Network (GVRN) at UNSW, Sydney. She engages in research projects aimed at informing policy development and best practice responses to individuals and communities impacted by gendered violence. She was recently awarded a UNSW Scientia PhD Scholarship to examine dowry and bride price practices in the Indo-Pacific region.

Mailin Suchting is the Manager of the Gendered Violence Research Network (GVRN) at UNSW, Sydney. She has worked for over three decades in leadership, management, education and frontline roles shaping public sector policy and responses to the health and justice impact of domestic and family violence, sexual assault and child physical abuse/neglect on individuals. She has a particular interest in gender, culture, sexuality and intersectionality. A current focus is the Gendered Violence & Organisations stream at GVRN which offers a suite of services including policy advice, face to face training and eLearning to employers who want to address the effects of domestic, family and sexual violence on their employees and organisations. Mailin was a member of the steering group that organised the Second National Dowry Abuse Summit.

Day Fourteen |Gender-based violence: a glimpse of feminist dilemmas in the academy

Cat Wayland, Kamya Choudhary and Radhika Govinda

Feminist cartoon day 14

Artwork by Samia Singh and used with permission and produced as part of the Teaching Feminisms, Transforming Lives Project, a collaboration between Ambedkar University and the University of Edinburgh

The above image is a preview of a (web)comic focused on feminist struggles in the academy, that is currently under development. The (web)comic features 24 pages of beautiful original artwork by illustrators Samia Singh based in Punjab, India, and Shazleen Khan, in London, UK. It is based on roundtable conversations and panel discussions that took place at Ambedkar University Delhi, India in December 2017 and at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland in February 2018 as part of the ongoing Teaching Feminisms, Transforming Lives Project

Some of the most poignant ideas and issues that emerged during the roundtable conversations and panel discussions pertained to sexual violence and sexual harassment of women, and how these are managed in the institutional space of universities. Feminist academics and activists speaking at these fora observed how commonplace sexual harassment and violence were, to the point that they could say with considerable confidence that there wouldn’t be a single woman who hadn’t experienced some form of sexual harassment or violence!

They noted that there were no doubt differences in the form and intensity of harassment and/or violence experienced; that this was informed by the intersectionality of race, caste, class, sexual orientation and so on; and that this could occur at the university and other places of work, or on the streets, or in more intimate spaces. Participants shared their experiences of sexual harassment, and even rape. These were moments for pause and reflection, for expressions of solidarity and support. 

There were other moments when participants expressed frustration and dismay at the ‘loving (and oft knowing) ignorance’ displayed by their colleagues, friends and family members about the everyday nature of sexual harassment and violence – the kind of ignorance which they processed through humour and irony. For instance, one speaker observed that they had been advocating for many years for these issues to be taken seriously but it wasn’t until the #MeToo movement emerged that more people started to take notice:

‘For the first time people who didn’t really know about it before are suddenly like, “oh is that what happens to women? Do you really have to assess your risk about when is it that you go home?” People are now listening in a way that they haven’t before and we said “[but] we’ve been trying to tell you this for years!”

Our intention is to capture these and more difficult moments and ideas on the pages of our (web)comic.

In honour of the 16 Days of Activism Against GBV, we wanted to showcase a panel from our (web)comic, which seeks to depict some of the dilemmas, challenges and contradictions that feminist academics are themselves confronted with when it comes to the issue of sexual harassment and violence in university spaces. Specifically, it engages with the notion that universities’ institutional responses to violence and harassment can often replicate and perpetuate paternalistic and patriarchal norms around women’s ‘safety’, in spite of also being spaces in which women can access emancipatory feminist education.

All-women colleges are considered one important way in which women from diverse backgrounds can access higher education in India. Some of these institutions pioneer rights-based and feminist consciousness-building, yet we are then left with the paradox whereby measures designed to mitigate the risk of sexual violence, such as housing in all-women’s hostels, end up enforcing new restrictions or replicating old patriarchal social norms.

There is a clear tension between the impulse to create safe and empowering spaces for women and the consequences of this strategy, which require instructions to create ‘rules’ that mimic familial patterns of control such as strict curfews, dress codes, visitation limitations, policing interactions, and so on. These rules end up treating women as ‘precious birds’ that need to be kept under lock and key. The displacement of patriarchal authority from the ‘threat’ of men on the outside to the paternal hand of the higher educational institution places feminist academics working in these institutions in a uniquely challenging and frustrating situation.

In August 2015, students came out to protest the imposition of curfews and other sexist rules on college-going women at Delhi’s Jamia University. They were soon joined by students in other Universities in Delhi and elsewhere in India. They called themselves the Pinjra Tod (Break the Cage) campaign. In less than a year, it had successfully pressured the Delhi Commission for Women into challenging discriminatory practices against college-going women at Delhi’s 23 registered universities. Over the years, Pinjra Tod has continued to mobilise and act both online and offline. It has broadened the ambit of its demands from ‘breaking the hostel locks’ to claiming women’s right to freely and fearlessly occupy and even take risks in public spaces. 

Campaigns like Pinjra Tod and #MeToo demonstrate that it is not only important for feminists in the academy to address issues of sexual harassment and violence but how we choose to address these issues is equally significant. Through the pages of our (web)comic, our aim is to not only debunk the myths of who is a feminist academic or ‘why doing gender studies is not a waste of time’ but to also offer a peak into the everyday struggles, dilemmas and contradictions that feminists face when it comes to the issue of sexual harassment and violence and the spaces we are able to create for resistance and change in the academy. 

As a conceptual tool, the comic is rooted in core academic literature and scholarly debates, but exists in a more accessible format that will make it easier to understand and for academic and non-academic audiences alike to engage with the highlights from the project events. This is in sync with the feminist and decolonial ideas we are working with to create more democratic and decentralised forms of knowledge creation. Illustrations from both artists, Samia Singh and Shazleen Khan, will reflect their respective styles and the cover illustration will be a collaborative piece that the two shall develop together. 

Being part of the conception and creation of this unique artwork has made us reflect on our own respective privileges and marginality, and recognising the powerful opportunity we have at our hands to contribute in destabilising knowledge production on feminism and GBV has been a real joy! We hope we have been able to share a glimpse of that in this blogpost. The creation and development of the (web)comic is supported by a Student Experience Grant and genderED. We invite you to look up a web version of the full comic, which will be up in the new year on the Gender Politics at Edinburgh blog.

Cat Wayland (@cat_wayland) is a PhD student in political theory at the University of Edinburgh, working on methodology, intersectionality and the politics of knowledge production. 

Kamya Choudhary (@KamyaChoudhary) is a PhD researcher in International Development at the University of Edinburgh, her research focuses on the impacts and the sustainability of renewable energy applications within agriculture in rural India. 

Dr Radhika Govinda (@GovindaRadhika) is a Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Edinburgh, UK. She has a keen interest in identity politics, intersectionality, and gender and development, and is the UK Lead on an ongoing North-South, UGC-UKIERI-funded research and teaching collaboration, Teaching Feminisms, Transforming Lives: Questions of Identity, Pedagogy, and Violence in India and the UK.

Day Thirteen | Making connections: Gender-based violence and women’s workforce participation

Sumangala Damodaran

Cotton Textile millsPhoto reproduced from Fibre2Fashion

As early as 1818, a group of British women weavers, or ‘Lancashire girls’ were brought to India to train women workers or ‘introduce factory methods of work’ in the Bowreah mill in Hooghly in Bengal. In her captivating account of the presence of women in India’s industrial sector, historian Samita Sen quotes an account by Janet Harvey Kelman, who wrote one of the earliest and most remarkable accounts of Indian labour, and according to whom women were associated with the ‘tragedy’ that surrounded the ‘first efforts to introduce modern mill industry into India’. The British women were released from a prison on an island in the Atlantic into the custody of a certain McAllister, who was the manager of the mill. It is believed that all succumbed later to an epidemic in India.

The presence of women in the industrial labour force in India, particularly in the  and the jute mills of Bengal, has thus been acknowledged from the beginnings of factory labour in India. Not only were women part of the industrial workforce, they also were the subject of numerous debates and controversies around their presence, especially between the introduction of the Factories Act in 1881 that was to regulate the conditions of industrial employment and the First World War.

Expectedly, the debates centred around the supposed contradiction between women’s sexual and reproductive roles in their families and as workers. The anxieties expressed about women’s participation in industrial work and the fear at what this presence outside the home and the family meant was, in this case, mediated by the colonial discourse around the usefulness of the female colonized subject. The debates also encompassed genuine concerns for women’s working conditions and safety in the industrial sector.

More than a century and a quarter later, the Female Workforce Participation Rate (FWPR) in India fell to 26% in 2018 and is seen, alarmingly, to have declined continuously over almost three decades. If we consider the region of South Asia, the pattern is mixed; in some countries, such as Nepal, the figures are quite high, whereas in Pakistan and India, they are declining, in India’s case alarmingly. This is particularly so  when compared to the global level, where women’s global labour force participation rate of around 48 per cent in 2018.

If women are participating less and less in what is conventionally considered ‘work’ or what contributes to the output of the economy, both as paid and unpaid workers, could it have something to do with gender-based violence which is a major contributor to the resilience of patriarchy? As with the ‘tragedy’ of women’s employment from the example of the ‘Lancashire girls’ and their Indian counterparts in the mills of Bengal, how does patriarchy’s continuous reiteration of the contradiction between women’s reproductive and productive or ‘visibly productive’ roles relate to the threat of violence?

It is acknowledged in academic work as well as in policy initiatives that actual violence and the fear of it affects the extent to which women participate in political and social processes. How does the violence that women face within and outside households, in communities and in workplaces impact women’s participation in, access to and exit from work and the workplace?

These are questions that need to be examined from the actual experiences of women with work as well as of violence and it is necessary to develop analytical frames that look at both simultaneously as fundamentally underpinning women’s lives and existence. The literatures that exist around the two axes, of work on the one hand and violence on the other, tend to be mostly mutually exclusive. Violence as an active variable tends to figure only tangentially in analyses of work and the understandings of gender based violence tend to address the structural features of women’s lives as workers only in a limited way.

Gendered analyses of work point out how the complexities of women’s existence and the invisibility of their labour results in complex negotiations between reproductive labour and both paid and unpaid ‘productive’ labour. The threat of violence within the family and from social networks is often seen to keep women out of the labour market or confine them to sectors where their work is considered more acceptable, or remains invisible.

Economic and political conditions within countries, like slumps or political upheavals, are also seen to have social impacts that typically raise the risk and incidence of violence against women. Further, even if, as in many countries in South Asia, the FWPR is very low and also falling, at the same time, there are newer sectors – particularly in services – where women are being employed and seen to be ‘visible’, often having to transgress patriarchal restrictions within families and communities.

The insights provided from actual experiences of work and workplaces could be useful to understand the multifaceted dimensions of gender-based violence. Further, the lens of violence and the dispositions within individuals, families and communities towards women’s work thus could generate rich material that allows for a nuanced understanding of the gendered dimensions of work.

 

Sumangala Damodaran is a Professor of Economics, Development Studies and Popular Music Studies at Ambedkar University Delhi. As a development economist, her research and publications fall broadly within the rubric of industrial and labour studies. She is also a singer and composer.

 

Day Three | We, the Women Warriors, are Unstoppable!

Shalu Nigam

Shalu NigamImage reproduced with the  permission of Shalu Nigam

After a long wait, the National Crime Record Bureau of India has recently published its report pertaining to crimes in India  in 2017. According to this report, 104,551 cases have been filed under section 498A IPC, a criminal law dealing with `cruelty’ against married women by their husbands and in-laws. A further 7,466 cases have been registered under section 304B, which pertains to dowry deaths, while 10,189 cases have been registered under the Dowry Prohibition Act, a law that bans the giving and taking of dowry. In addition, 5,282 cases have been registered for abetment of suicide among women and 616 cases have been registered under the Protection of Women Against Domestic Violence Act, for breaching the civil orders granted under this law in favor of the victims of domestic violence.

The NCRB report further indicates that the conviction rate was as low as 9.5% under section 498A cases in 2016, but which rose to 15.9% in 2017. In cases pertaining to dowry deaths, the conviction rate is 41.1% in 2017. These figures indicate that majority of women who knock on the doors of the court are not receiving justice. Compounding this, violent men are being acquitted by the courts. 

This data shows that a large number of women are not safe in their own homes. They are being physically and psychologically assaulted, verbally and emotionally tortured, discriminated, sexually harassed, murdered, forced to commit suicide and attacked in numerous ways. Serious complaints of violence are normalised and trivialised, framed as ‘disputes’ or `ego tussles’. Myths and misogyny operate in  society and the courtrooms alike to deny justice to women survivors of violence.

 

The role of the Supreme Court 

 Despite the fact that a large number of women are approaching the police and the courts with their complaints of violence within homes, police are rarely arresting violent men and the courts are failing to hold them accountable. In some instances, the courts are actually making the problem worse. For example, in 2014, the Supreme Court decided the matter of Arnesh Kumar v State of Bihar. It delivered a sweeping statement that section 498A, a criminal law provision relating to domestic violence, is being ‘misused and abused by disgruntled women’ and directed for the dilution of the provisions relating to the arrest and bail of accused persons. 

Then, in 2017, in Rajesh Sharma v State of UP the Supreme Court passed a directive to police and magistrates that no arrests were to be made or coercive actions taken without ascertaining the veracity of the complaints lodged under section 498A. It suggested the formulation of Family Welfare Committees to scrutinise every complaint of domestic violence to ensure that no ‘false cases’ were registered. Without examining the on-the-ground realities, the court concluded that the law is misused by ‘vengeful’ women, and saw men as victims of this ‘cruel’ law. While himpathising (a term coined by Kate Manne) with the accused persons, the bench remarked that there was “violation of human rights of innocents”. In contrast, no compassion is shown towards the women who are abused, abandoned, burned, murdered, killed, raped and brutalised.

However, after protest by several women’s organizations and petitions filed in the Supreme Court, the Court heard the matter of Social Action Forum for Manav Adhikar v Union of India in 2018. It ordered the Family Welfare Committees be done away with, while retaining the provision relating to arrest and bail for the accused persons. Even earlier, the Law Commission and several other state institutions too, have recommended the dilution of the domestic violence laws.

The legal system provides a platform for women to raise their concerns; however, there is a lack of commitment in implementation. Over the years, concerted actions have been taken by state actors to dilute the provisions of law. The system is being manipulated to serve the logic of the patriarchy, protecting the interest of the dominant group while reinforcing the prevailing biased stereotypical norms. The state more broadly is treating domestic violence as a social crime and using manipulative tools –including mandatory mediation – designed to compel women to arrive at a ‘compromise’ or ‘settlement’ with the accused persons without any assurance for their safety (and that of their children), and without punishing the abusive men. In many other cases pertaining to domestic violence, dowry deaths and suicide by married women, the courts have granted immunity to violent men by placing weight on the principle of ‘family harmony’, and in the process, disregarding the constitutional rights of women as citizens.

 

We, the Women, are Warriors and We Will Persist!

Yet the survivors, who may be seen as powerless and vulnerable, through their sheer grit, are demanding justice, breaking the codes of prolonged imposed silence, shaking the system and forcing it to respond. They are not feminists or experts but they are everyday women who, with their own sense of justice, and with scant resources or little support, are seeking a violence-free life for themselves and their children. They are fighting battles not only against abusive men but also against the patriarchal structures within homes, misogyny in courts, and androcentric culture and sexism in society. In doing so, they are reclaiming ownership of their lives with persistence, courage and resilience.

The law is currently implemented in a way that means complainants are being revictimised in the process. Despite this, women are using the law to reclaim their rights and resist violence. Those who are registering their complaints are negotiating their rights and contesting their claims while challenging the stubborn patriarchy. While writing their own stories of emancipation, they are shifting the inegalitarian structure within families, creating democratic spaces within society and –  in fighting to seek freedom, or aazadi, from violence – they are demanding the recognition of their dignity. 

For the state, as well as national and international organisations working on the issue of violence, it is essential to focus on women’s autonomy and agency in a patriarchal society and to provide support measures that help them to attain socio-economic self-sufficiency while countering ingrained misogyny. Many women are compelled to stay and bear violence because they lack any other options. There is therefore a  need to create a mechanism whereby women can access support that is specific to their circumstances. Until then, through their tough persistent legal and social battles, the simple message women are giving is this: “We, the women warriors, are unstoppable; unless violence is eliminated, we will persist”. 

 

Shalu Nigam (@ShaluNigam) is an advocate, researcher and an activist working at the intersection of gender, law, governance and human rights issues. She is currently practicing at the courts in Delhi and is associated with the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, Delhi, Indian Social Institute, Delhi, as well as the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, Delhi. She was awarded a Senior Fellowship by the Indian Council for Social Science Research, Delhi. She has published several books, the recent one is Women and Domestic Violence in India: A Quest for Justice. She has been a regular contributor to countercurrents.org and has published her essays in journals such as the Indian Journal of Gender Studies, South Asia Journal, Social Action, International Journal of Gender and Women’s Studies, Women’s Link, Legal News and Views among others. You can read some of  her work here and here