By Amita Chudgar
The day after our teach-in, on January 24th, 2013, the airwaves and newspapers were filled with the announcement that the U.S. Pentagon had dropped the ban that excluded women from combat roles. That night, as I was driving home, on PRI’s “The World” I heard an interview with U.S. Marine Corps Reserve Capt. Zoe Bedell. At the end of the interview, she was asked what she thought this would mean for sexual assault on women in the military, which is “already out of control by many accounts.” She answered, “Policy as it used to stand; it justified the behavior of treating women as second class citizens. If you are now saying, no, women are equal…that equality will eventually permeate the organization…it is a step in the right direction.”
This is the point I wanted to make with my brief presentation at the teach-in. Sexual violence against women in India (and surely elsewhere in the world) perpetuates, at least in part, because girls and women are not treated as equal to men in almost any walk of life.
I shared some simple, yet deeply disturbing statistics to show how discrimination against women is pervasive in Indian society. It rears its ugly head countless times each day when a girl is denied the opportunity to be born, to live a healthy life, to learn, and when a woman is denied the ability to own and control financial resources or is made to believe that it is acceptable for a husband to beat his wife if she goes out without asking his permission or does not cook properly.
In such an environment of deep and pervasive gender inequity, extreme forms of violence against women perpetuate much more easily and shamelessly.
I relied entirely on the most recent National Family Health Survey report (NFHS-3, 2005-2006). This survey is based on a nationally representative sample of 124,385 women age 15-49 and 74,369 men age 15-54 from all 29 states in India. Based on various tables available in this report, I made four observations.
- Women are much more likely to have received no education. A large number of Indian women report having had no education at all. This number is very high, in the vicinity of 60 percent for older women, but also alarmingly high for younger women ages 15-19 years, 20 percent of whom report having no education. The comparable number for men show that at any given age level, the proportion of men with no education is less than half of the proportion of women with no education.
- Women are much less likely to control financial decisions. No matter what age group, less than 50% of women reported that they have money they can decide how to use. And far less, somewhere between 10-20% of women reported that they have bank or savings account they themselves access.
- Deeply entrenched male preference. The low levels of education and low economic freedom enjoyed by women is not altogether surprising when we note that a female child is more likely to die than a male child both as an infant and as a child below the age of 5. In fact, when mothers were asked if they would prefer more male or female children, uniformly all the respondents, even the highly educated mothers, reported a preference for male children that far exceeded their preference for female children.
- A high level of male to female domestic violence is considered acceptable by both men and women: Both men and women were offered a range of reasons for which a man was justified in beating his wife. These included “going out without telling him, neglecting the house or children, arguing with him, refusing to have sex, not cooking properly, he suspects she is unfaithful, showing disrespect to in-laws” the details vary, but suffice it to say that in both cases an overwhelming number of men and women (in the neighborhood of 50%) agreed that at least one of these was a justifiable reason for a man to beat his wife.
If there can be a silver lining in this grim situation, it is this: Younger women were far less accepting of male to female domestic violence. Unlike their mothers, they were less willing to accept that it is justifiable for a man to beat is wife.
As Capt. Zoe Bedell noted, when we stop treating women as second class citizens, it is also a “step in the right direction” for abating sexual violence against women. The challenges ahead of us are vast and urgent. As we work on the systems, laws, and judiciary, we also need to work on something almost more urgent: we need to work on changing the attitude that it is somehow acceptable to treat our daughters, sisters, and mothers as second-class citizens.
Amita Chudgar is Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Administration at Michigan State University. Her work examines the influence of home, school, and community contexts on educational access and achievement of children in resource-constrained environments. Through the analysis of diverse, large-scale, national (India), regional (South Asia and Francophone Africa) and cross-national datasets, she explores the role of policy-relevant variables in ensuring equal educational opportunities for disadvantaged children. As nations struggle to provide these opportunities to more children with fewer resources, the pursuit of educational equity and quality compete with demands for greater efficiency. Her recent research has actively engaged with and responded to the inherent tensions among equity, quality, and efficiency by examining the growth in alternative forms of education provision (increasing reliance on various forms of private schooling, contract-based teaching) and their implications. Her long-term interests as a scholar focus on ensuring that children and adults in resource-constrained environments have equal access to high-quality learning opportunities irrespective of their backgrounds.