By Jackie Hansen, Women’s Rights Campaigner, Amnesty International Canada
In May 2015, Meenakshi Kumari, her 15 year old sister (whom we are not naming because she is a minor), and other family members fled their village in India’s Uttar Pradesh state after an all-male village council ordered them to be raped and paraded naked through the streets as punishment for their brother eloping with a higher-caste woman. Meenakshi took the courageous step of reporting what happened to the authorities, and her case was taken all the way to India’s Supreme Court.
Today, the Supreme Court of India recognized the risks to Meenakshi and her family and ordered the Delhi Police to provide the family with protection. But this isn’t over yet. The family must receive justice and reparation, and if they are unable to return to their village they must receive support to rebuild their lives in another community.
This case is so extraordinary because Meenakshi, a Dalit woman, reported human rights violations to authorities that were taken seriously and resulted in a ruling to protect her and her family.
Why is this so rare? Because women, men, and transgender people in India are not treated equally by the law or Indian society.
Discrimination against women and girls in India is widespread and starts in the womb—boys are often seen as more desirable than girls, and parents may selectively choose to abort female fetuses. Girls may be forced to marry at a young age, and may not be able to choose who they marry.
Rape within marriage is not recognized as a crime if the wife is over 15 years of age. Rates of violence against women are high, and laws bringing perpetrators to account for their actions are rarely enforced. And a number of public officials and political leaders have made statements appearing to justify crimes against women, contributing to a culture of impunity.
In India, some actions or situations may be seen to bring shame or dishonour on a family. Having sex outside marriage, choosing your marriage partner, seeking a divorce, being raped, dressing “provocatively,” engaging in same sex relations, or otherwise stepping outside the boundaries of what it means to be a woman or a man in Indian society can lead a family or a community to feel shamed or dishonoured.
Illegal punishments often referred to as “honour crimes” may be carried out to restore a family or a community’s reputation and honour. These crimes are usually committed against women and girls, often by members of their own family, and are deeply rooted in gender discrimination. Honour crimes include shunning, physical and sexual assault, and homicide.
The village council’s order—that Meenakshi and her sister be raped and paraded naked through the streets—is an honour crime. They were to be punished for their brother’s ‘transgression’ of community marriage practices.
The 2012 gang rape of a female student on a bus in New Delhi led to international outcry, and was a key factor leading to changes made in 2013 to India’s penal code sections related to physical and sexual violence. But violence against women and girls remains widespread in India. Of particular concern are high rates of violence against women and girls from marginalized castes and communities, including Dalits (so-called ‘untouchables’) and Adivasis (Indigenous people). Meenakshi and her family are Dalits.
Dalit and Adivasi women and girls continue to face multiple levels of discrimination and violence. Members of dominant castes are known to use sexual violence against Dalit women and girls as a political tool for punishment, humiliation and assertion of power. Police are also known to collude with perpetrators from dominant castes in covering up crimes by not registering or investigating offences against Dalits. Activists working with Dalits and Adivasis say that the systemic bias against the groups make it less likely that crimes against these women and girls will be reported, investigated and prosecuted effectively.
Changing attitudes and laws
India has obligations under international and national laws to promote non-discrimination and gender equality. But this is not enough. Laws must be enforced, and this must be accompanied by changes in beliefs and attitudes about the role of women and girls in Indian society.
India joined the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Under this treaty India is obligated to prevent discrimination against all women and girls, repeal laws which discriminate, and enact laws which promote gender equality.
In 2013, India amended its penal code provisions related to violence against women and girls. “The new law does have some welcome features,” said G. Ananthapadmanabhan, Chief Executive of Amnesty International India. “It commendably criminalizes several forms of violence against women including acid attacks, stalking and voyeurism. It is more sensitive to the needs of disabled persons, provides for certain victim-friendly evidentiary procedures and removes the requirement of government permission for prosecution of public servants accused of rape and some forms of sexual violence.”
But the 2013 law didn’t do enough to meet its CEDAW obligations. It reduced access to healthcare and legal support for victims. It introduced the death penalty and life imprisonment without the possibility of release for certain offenses. And it failed to criminalize marital rape, and offered relative impunity for members of the security forces who commit rape.
As reports of crimes against women increase, and as under-reporting of these crimes remain widespread, India must do more to amend its laws and ensure they are fully enforced to help end violence against women and girls and promote gender equality.
Responding to gender discrimination!
Our colleagues at Amnesty International India are taking action to end gender discrimination! They are running a campaign called “Ready to Report” which encourages women and girls who have experienced sexual violence to report incidents to law enforcement. In India, reporting of crimes against women and girls are vastly underreported because of concerns about personal safety and social stigma. The campaign highlights the multiple challenges survivors of sexual violence face in reporting what happened to them. By addressing these challenges, the campaign aims to educate women and girls about their rights and about India’s laws, and aims to reduce the fear women and girls have about reporting sexual violence.
Why is this important? Because statistics show that for every one woman who reports sexual violence to the police in India, there are another 99 that do not. And those who do report face challenges in having their complaints taken seriously.
But these concerns didn’t stop Meenakshi! She took her case all the way to India’s Supreme Court.