The debate on both traditional and social media this week has been focused on the poll conducted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, which has ranked India as the world’s most dangerous country for women, ahead of Afghanistan, Syria and Saudi Arabia. Women’s rights activists and self-proclaimed patriots have been at war with each other over the reliability of the poll.
Admittedly, the survey is hardly scientific. It is not based on data, or even empirical and anecdotal evidence, but solely on the responses of a select group of academics, policymakers, journalists, healthcare professionals and those working in various sectors of development.
The report on the Thomson Reuters website says that of 759 people initially contacted, 548 replied, and the results are a compilation of responses based entirely on the perceptions of the interviewees to the main question in the survey: Which five of the 193 member states of the United Nations did they believe were most dangerous for women, and which country did they think was worst in terms of healthcare, economic resources, cultural or traditional practices, sexual violence and harassment, non-sexual violence and human trafficking.
It all sounds rather unprofessional. If the report were based on statistics, it would mean two things, one worrying – that crime against women is indeed rampant – and the other heartening: that women are beginning to report violence and abuse.
But what is even more unprofessional than the survey is the response of Indians, even those representing official bodies, to the results.
The National Commission for Women dismissed the poll, and said countries where women had no right to speak had done better. Even more appallingly, the Commission said violence in India “appears” to have risen because more cases are being reported. Would they rather women kept their peace so that India’s crime rate could look pretty in international surveys?
The Ministry of Women and Child Development offered a conspiracy theory in an official response:
that conducting “an opinion poll to peg India as the most dangerous country for women is clearly an effort to malign the nation and draw attention away from real improvements seen in recent years.” Could they blame it on Nehru? Perhaps.
Various social commentators and trolls are angry that Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Syria did not beat India to this dubious distinction.
As evidence of the poll’s miscalculations, they offered this: the United States has been ranked tenth in the list of most dangerous countries for women, and third for sexual violence, an index which India has topped, even over the Democratic Republic of Congo.
But can we consider the US safe for women in the light of what we know of campus rape, attitudes in universities to sexual harassment of female students, the #MeToo movement, and the emergence of the InCels or Involuntary Celibates as a worldwide collective particularly concentrated in developed countries?
The report also had India on top in the indices of human trafficking, ahead of Libya and Myanmar, and for cultural traditions.
We tend to think of safety for women almost exclusively in terms of rape and sexual harassment. We conveniently forget about slavery, bonded labour, female infanticide and foeticide, dowry harassment, murder, maternal healthcare, personal hygiene, and mutilation.
Women are targeted, sometimes for men to avenge themselves against each other, sometimes in vengeance against a community (as was the case with the horrific case of Asifa), sometimes to avenge women for rejecting the romantic overtures of the perpetrators (as is the case with most acid attacks
While doing a story on stalking in 2016, I looked up the statistics put forth by the National Crime Records Bureau, and calculated that a woman was sexually harassed every six minutes in India.
The maternal mortality rate in India was 174 per 100,000 live births in 2015, according to UNICEF data based on an inter-agency survey by the UN. This was only topped by countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Pakistan, Nepal, Haiti, Bolivia, and Afghanistan, none of which has development indices anywhere close to India’s.
Anecdotal stories of maternal deaths indicate that hospitals are too often not easily accessible, inordinately expensive, and rife with corruption.
Despite Bollywood churning out hits on the making of sanitary napkins, women in large swathes of India have no access to menstrual hygiene products.
Despite the Swachch Bharat campaign having been on for three years, there are millions of households with no toilets.
How can the country be safe for women when they have to slip out to the fields to relieve themselves, when they are constantly exposing themselves to infection while pregnant or bleeding?
For all the arguments over curbs on women in Syria and Saudi Arabia, it must be noted that India is one of the few countries in the world – and perhaps the only secular country – that does not have a law banning female genital mutilation.
The issue is being contested in the Supreme Court.
The only recourse women have against FGM is Section 324 and Section 326 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which deal with voluntarily causing hurt or grievous assault by dangerous weapons or means, and Section 3 of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012, which punishes penetrative assault using an object. But a good lawyer could easily argue against these.
The online platform Sahiyo, established for survivors of FGM and advocates against it, found through a survey that up to 80 per cent of Bohra Muslim women could be subjected to “khatna” in India.
More than 70 years after independence, the Supreme Court has been contemplating whether rape is a crime if the perpetrator is the victim’s husband. We have no provision for punishment for rapists of transgender women. We have no provision for punishment of women who sexually assault other women.
This is no time for jingoism or defensiveness. It is time for contemplation. Why is India perceived as more dangerous for women than countries where women could not drive until a few days ago? And what are we going to do about it?
More Columns by Nandini Krishnan:
The illusion of secularism
When hooliganism is state-sanctioned
Tarun Tejpal case: When the media plays jury
Karnataka: Death of democracy
India shining as ecosystems die?
Tamil Nadu: The land of the lawless
When death does not deter
Power play at a time of crisis
A country in denial
The gods have left the temples
What cricketers' reactions to ball-tampering show
Even Chhota Bheem knows our data was never private
No Confidence Motion: Why is the BJP nervous?
Do we really have the right to die with dignity?
Democracy has no place for mobs
The Sridevi South India lost
Nandini is a journalist and humour writer based in Madras. She is the author of Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage.