Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Disastrous Impact of Women's Safety Issues on India's Culture and Image

Ever since the Narendra Modi government has come to power, one can clearly see an agenda to improve India’s global image.

However, continued global media reporting on violence against women in India coupled with the Brookings India paper titled Necessity of a new conversation on Women in India published on June 23, 2014, brings the spotlight back to a glaring gap that stands to tarnish India’s image. As Indians, we do take immense pride in the diverse cultural fabric of our society. That fabric is held together by the women of India.

On talking to my expat friends, the question of violence against women in India tends to inadvertently come up. When I begin to explain that its roots lie in the weak law enforcement (as is the case with most crimes), I say it with degree of trepidation. The next question I would get asked is on the kind of outrageous comments that some influential Indian politicians have recently made, including the most infamous one by a former chief minister that stand to trivialize rape as a mistake.

Images from 'Abused Goddesses' campaign of Save The Children India

Clearly as a PR professional, I understand how deep an impact such incidents and comments have on India’s image.

So, the fact that the issue of women’s safety was completely missing from the Prime Minister’s 10-point agenda and was brought up as a reaction to the politicization of the Badaun incident in the Indian state of U.P., was not really the best way for a new government to tackle such a socially critical aspect.

Can India really improve its image without addressing the issue of women’s safety? We would be deceiving ourselves by believing so.

Some argue that by putting women in key ministries, the present government has sent out the right message. While it’s a welcome step but we must not forget that India has had a woman PM for over 15 years (Mrs. Indira Gandhi) and most states have had women Chief Ministers. In fact, the state of U.P., which recently witnessed the most heinous crimes against women, has had two women Chief Ministers, Sucheta Kriplani (also India's first woman CM) and Mayawati. Sheila Dikshit was Delhi Chief Minister for 15 years till 2013. Yet the situation of women’s safety in India has deteriorated over the years.

So what’s the way forward?

Some people point to the re-introduction of the long-pending Women’s Reservation Bill as well as reservation of jobs for women in public and private sector as a possible solution.

Sheryl Sandberg, COO, Facebook and the author of "Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead" in a recent interview to CNBC TV18 said that quality should remain the key criterion for women (or men) holding any office. She gave the example of Norway which has a 40% reservation for women in parliament since 2003 yet only 3% of CEOs in that country are women. She argues that we need to get rid of the inhibitions on women, in personal and professional life, rather than trying to provide any preferential treatment. Most of my women colleagues have often voiced their dislike for any sort of preferential treatment being offered  to them in public life just because they are women. 

When we compare that thought to our experience with reservation or reserved quotas for certain sections of society in India, it’s very similar. The beneficiaries of most reservations have always been the creamy layer even within the Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST). Had the focus been on providing better quality education in government schools and colleges rather than solely relying on reservation for SC/ ST, their situation would have been far better. In fact, reservation often makes these communities a subject of rebuke.

So, if the Women’s Reservation Bill does get passed by the Indian Parliament, it may get us some good media coverage but little results for the majority of women. It is most likely to benefit women belonging to higher strata of society or wives of existing politicians who would be fielded by their husbands to take advantage of the reservation, as has been the case so far.

There is a dire need to encourage more women in cities and particularly in villages to come forward and actively participate in public life. But for that to happen, women’s safety is the most basic pre-requisite.

If we look at other countries facing women’s safety issues such as Nigeria (in the limelight owing to the Boko Haram abduction of over 200 girls), there is a common thread – weak law enforcement. Having lived in Nigeria for over 12 years, I can say that for things to have reached such a low point, it reflects the extreme situation that can happen with the breakdown of an already weak law enforcement machinery. It’s a word of caution for Indian governments that the women’s safety issue, if not addressed with the utmost priority, can lead to far more serious crimes at a scale and severity never seen before. 

When governments lose their grip on law enforcement, anti-social elements take the law into their hands with a sense of impunity. For instance in the case of U.P., there is little that one expect from the state government in managing law and order, an aspect that the Samajwadi Party is notorious for messing up, thanks to its own unruly party cadre. Only pressure from all sides – public pressure combined with Central government pressure, can make it deal with law enforcement seriously.

Of course, there is a need for a mindset change which I addressed in my earlier blog post Women’s and children’s safety is impossible in a society that eulogizes aggression. However, that may take a generation to fully address so let’s start with what we can do on an immediate basis.

If there are people who still believe that the issue of women’s safety is not critical enough to figure in the top 10 priorities of Central and State governments, it may just be too late before we realize the damage to India’s culture, to its youth, to the economy and, obviously to India’s image in the world.