Make 2013 Year Against Gender Violence

There is a danger that the momentum generated by the protests against the Delhi gang rape will slip into something quiet and self-satisfied because the Lt Governor, back from his holidays, has announced some measures to make Delhi a safer place for women and girls.

Nothing’s been won yet, but it doesn’t take long for things to return to business as usual in India. But India must gear up and give the lead. One way to guard against complacency would be to dedicate 2013 to fighting rape and other gender-based violence.

Obviously, centuries-old prejudices are not going to disappear in a year. Which is why it’s really important to keep the momentum going by transforming popular grievance into something that finds vocal and passionate advocates in government and elsewhere in the corridors of power.

One of the more disappointing features of the Indian protests so far has been the near absence of political parties in addressing the substantive issues.

Here in the UK, where the state takes a far greater responsibility for citizens’ welfare than in many other countries (even developed countries), women’s safety is being addressed by both the coalition government as well as the opposition Labour party through separate credible initiatives.

The issues are a bit different in Britain but Britons are motivated by the same aim as the protesters in Delhi: how to promote women’s safety. The British government has a consultation on widening the definition of (and therefore the scope of action against) domestic violence by including men and women in the 17-19 years age group.

The opposition Labour party has its own consultation in the form of a Commission dedicated to women’s safety. Called Everywoman Safe Everywhere, it is chaired by Vera Baird, a former Solicitor General. Since its establishment in 2011, it has held scores of evidence sessions and engaged with more than 100 organisations and experts and received more than 160 submissions from men and women across the country.

In March this year, it released its first interim report, which paints “a grim picture,” says Baird. “Refuge providers facing unprecedented financial pressure. 230 women fleeing violence being turned away on a typical day because of a lack of beds. Experienced Domestic Violence Co-ordinators being lost. Specialist Courts are under pressure. Streetlights are going out to the concern of women coming home late from work.”

For the thousands of Indian protesters as well as those in government and police who want to see change, Baird’s words will chime in with their own concerns. And it’s important to note these UK initiatives because they are an example of how society can move forward together – in spite of disagreements over the detail, the bottom line is clear: everybody wants women’s safety.

You can see the Commission’s report here: Everywoman Safe Everywhere: Labour’s Commission into Women’s Safety – Interim report

India urgently needs a Gender Commission, as statured as the Population Commission chaired by the Prime Minister. Such a body can give direction in the years ahead – through wide consultation and without bureaucracy and political grandstanding of the kind we saw from the BJP and Sushma Swaraj. It will need to identify all the local partners in the states and involve all concerned ministries to address gender violence, with the ministry for women’s affairs being the lead ministry.

Gender discrimination cuts across every area of governance. The Population Commission lists some important achievements over 50 years: crude birth rate down from 40.8 (1951) to 26.4 (1998, SRS); infant mortality rate halved from 146 per 1000 live births (1951) to 72 per 1000 live births (1998, SRS); life expectancy up from 37 years to 62 years; fertility rate down from 6.0 (1951) to 3.3 (1997, SRS).

But it makes no mention of the fact that the sex ratio in India remains unacceptably skewed in favour of boys – 916 girls to 1,000 boys aged 0-6 years. Delhi has a particularly low sex ratio of 866 women. This will end up compromising a number of achievements made in other fields, including economic growth. But that’s not the point here: the point is women’s safety for its own sake, and the time is now.

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