Fighting Violence Against Women: Laws, Initiatives and the Shadow Pandemic

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Violence against women (VAW) is globally pervasive and the numbers are staggering. A 2013 analysis conducted by WHO found that worldwide, 35 per cent (1 in 3) of women have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence. Most of this violence is intimate partner violence. Data also shows that almost one third (30%) of women who have been in a relationship report that they have experienced some form of physical and/or sexual violence by their intimate partner in their lifetime. Globally, as many as 38% of murders of women are committed by a male intimate partner.

The global prevalence of physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence is the highest in the WHO African, Eastern Mediterranean and South-East Asia Regions, where approximately 37% of ever-partnered women reported having experienced physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence at some point in their lives.

The Asia Foundation’s recent report, “The State of Conflict and Violence in Asia,” finds that gender-based violence is one of the deadliest forms of violence in the region. It often kills more people than armed conflict and other forms of escalated violence that typically receive more attention from policymakers and development actors. Between 2011 and 2015, India recorded over 40,000 dowry-related deaths. This is over 10 times more than the combined fatalities of the Kashmir conflict, the Naxalite rebellion, and Northeast India insurgencies during the same period of time, all genders combined. And dowry-related deaths are only one of many deadly forms of gender-based violence in India.

It’s not that there is any shortage of legislations on VAW in India. In fact, among South Asian countries, India has some of the most extensive laws and a large legal machinery to protect the rights of women.

A few of the earliest measures include the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act, 1956 and the Commission of Sati Prevention Act, passed in 1987. The Dowry Prohibition Act, enacted on May 1, 1961, was intended to prevent the giving or receiving of dowry. The Government of India (GoI) by way of the Criminal Law (Second Amendment) Act, 1983on December 26, 1983, amended the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (IPC) and inserted a new Section 498(A), which states that if a husband or relative of husband of a woman subjects such woman to cruelty shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and shall also be liable to fine. Section 174 of the Criminal Procedure Code was amended by the Criminal Law Act, 1983, to provide for investigation by the police of cases of suicide committed by women or death of women occurring in suspicious circumstances within 7 years of marriage. The GoI has also set up anti-dowry cells and mobile police squads in Delhi and other cities. The National Commission for Women (NCW) was set up in 1992 to examine legal safeguards provided by the constitution and other laws and recommend measures for its effective implementation.

India has also been a party to several international human rights conventions addressing violence directed towards women and girls. Of these, the two most directly relevant to the issue of VAW are the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), 1979, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), 1989. Following the Fourth UN World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, the GoI took up several measures to ensure the advancement of women’s rights in India. The National Policy on Empowerment of Women adopted in 2001 seeks to review discriminatory laws and establish effective machinery to monitor the delivery of justice to women.

Despite all the efforts, legislations are not being consistently enforced and monitored. Significant gaps in legal frameworks still remain. We are still failing to live up to international obligations and commitments to prevent and address violence against women. Too many perpetrators are not held accountable, and women continue to be re-victimized through the legal process.

COVID-19 seems to have brought about a shadow pandemic of violence against women. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, emerging data and reports from those on the front lines, have shown that all types of violence against women and girls, particularly domestic violence, has intensified. The NCW had in April suggested an almost 100% increase in such incidents during the lockdown as more and more people were staying at home or working from home. Between March 1 and September 18, the NCW has received 4,350 complaints through email, phone and a dedicated WhatsApp number during the period when the country is in the grip of Covid-19 pandemic. The trend showed that the incidents of domestic violence have increased during the Unlock period. The month of July reported the highest number of complaints at 660, followed by June (537) when the Centre started opening up more activities. The number of domestic violence cases could be much more as a large number of cases go unreported while some approach other agencies like police and state women commissions.

It is now being increasingly recognised by policymakers in India as well as globally, that violence against women and girls is a serious constraint to achieving development goals. The concern has prompted innovations that seek to address women’s vulnerability in various arenas.

For example, Thailand’s police department is working on an Artificial Intelligence enabled application called Sis Bot. Sis Bot is a chat bot that can provide 24/7 information services for survivors of violence, accessible through their mobile device or a computer. A woman facing domestic violence can for instance, message the Sis Bot via Facebook Messenger and it will immediately respond with information about how to report to the police, how to preserve evidence, and what support services or compensation they are entitled to by law. At the Centre for Economic Performance (CEP) at LSE, researchers are working on machine-learning systems that analyse existing information, including criminal records, calls made to the police and reported incidents of violence, can identify the risk of repeat incidents more accurately than current standardised questionnaires used by police forces. They suggest that their work could improve the police response to domestic abuse calls.

These initiatives, though encouraging, does not take away from the fact that there is not sufficient evidence on what works in preventing and mitigating gender-based violence in low-income countries and crisis contexts. To improve policies and programmes in the future, the design of GBV initiatives has to incorporate data and impact assessments. What we need now is for organisations and nations to work together in addressing this evidence gap and combat GBV globally.

Anubrata Basu – Senior Manager – Research & Communications, Sambodhi

Author: Sambodhi

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