The latest figure available from the National Crime Records Bureau (2014-16) tell us that statistics on the rape of women have gone up by 12 to 15 per cent, and that other crimes against women have risen by 3 to 5 per cent. As many as thirty-nine crimes are reported every hour in the country. The capital of India, Delhi, holds the dubious distinction of being the “rape” capital of the country, but figures on sexual crimes have also risen in Bengaluru and Pune.

What is more worrying is the data from the National Family Health Survey, which is a national representative survey, conducted in 2015-16. This data is regarded as the most credible in the country. Detailed questions on physical and sexual violence were asked to a sample of 79,729 women between 2015 and 2016.

The survey reported that every third woman since the age of fifteen has faced domestic violence of various forms in the country; 27 per cent of women have confronted physical violence since age fifteen, and this is more common in the rural areas than in urban ones.The report also showed that 99 per cent of the cases go unreported. In most cases, the perpetrator of domestic violence is the husband, or other male relatives of the victim.

The average Indian woman, it was reported, is seventeen times more likely to face sexual abuse from her husband than from others.

If marital rape and assault is excluded from the statistics on violence against women, only about 15 per cent of sexual violence that is reported to the police is committed by people outside the home. At the same time, the year 2016 saw the lowest conviction rate in trials on violence against women completed by courts.10

It is not surprising that international opinion holds that India is the most dangerous country in the world for women. The Thomson Reuters Foundation concluded exactly this after its survey in 2018. The survey measured sexual and non-sexual violence, discrimination, cultural traditions, healthcare, and human trafficking.

Three years earlier, India ranked third in the grading, by 2018 our country topped the list of countries known for crimes against women, particularly in the field of sexual violence. Ironically, India ranks higher than war-torn Afghanistan and Syria. The conclusions were reached after a number of experts on women’s issues were polled.

In sum, though more cases of crimes against women are being reported, still, not enough cases are registered due to the involvement of family members, powerful people, and for other reasons.

What exactly does under-reporting of sexual violence against women in India tell us about the state of gender relations in society, or rather, about the fundamentals of our society?

One reason for helplessness is under-representation in the workforce. Data shows that women are dropping out of the labour force in the rural sector. Nearly half the number of women who were in the workforce in 2004-05 had dropped out in 2017-18. The sixty-first round of the National Sample Survey Office recorded that 48.5 per cent rural women above the age of fifteen were employed for a major or a subsidiary activity [before 2018] but this number had dropped to 23.7 per cent in the report of the Periodic Labour Force Survey.

The drop of women in the labour force is not sudden, this is a trend that began in 2011-12. The decline in urban women’s employment is less, dropping from 22.7 per cent in 2004-05 to 18.2 per cent in 2017-18.

The figures are troublesome, because employment is not only a matter of securing an income. Employment, among other factors, enables women to challenge structures of patriarchy. Lack of opportunities to access economic independence intensifies women’s vulnerability. This, in turn, increases the stifling grip of a culture of silence. Women are told to be quiet when they are subjected to sexual crimes, either to avoid stigma or to keep the family together, or both.

Two, given that substantial parts of the country, as subsequent chapters will discuss, are held together by security forces, and these forces are granted immunity against prosecution by draconian laws, a culture of immunity protects perpetrators of crimes against women.

It is not only security forces that are granted immunity, politicians and their minions, police officers and men who exercise great power manage to get away after they have committed sexual crimes, as do militants in conflict regions.

It follows that institutions, procedures, and agents who are supposed to protect citizens – such as the police – and institutions that dispense justice – such as tribunals, committees, and the courts – are compromised. All governments can be arbitrary and heedless of the interests of their citizens, particularly the most vulnerable sections of society. Such arbitrary exercises of power are kept in check in a democracy by institutions, laws, and civil society organisations.

When the capacity of civil society organisations to mount protest against exploitation and sexual abuse of women is neutralised by state power, and when institutions and laws that possess the capacity to protect citizens are subordinated to problematic ideologies such as some abstract notion of national security, the rights of citizens are violated with a degree of impunity.

What does the security of the nation mean when the security of its women is at risk? This is the question we should be asking the holders of state power and the dispensers of ideologies that support state power. This culture of impunity percolates to the men of the household. We witness everyday violence that makes life precarious for women.

Political theorists hold that the state, as the condensate of power, sets the framework for all sorts of transactions in the household, in society, in religious groupings, in educational institutions, in the workplace, and even in sites of recreation. If the government is silent when criminals brutalise women and little girls, if it does not attempt to protect the lives of the vulnerable, or when the holders of state power barely blink when terrible things are done to people who are defenceless, they are guilty of complicity in violent acts against women.

They are also guilty, as we shall see, of crimes against religious minorities, against the lower castes, against the inhabitants of regions which are termed security threats, and even against those who resist violence against their bodies and minds. When the government is silent, when it is complicit in acts of astounding violence, it gives tacit consent to patriarchy, which sanctions brutality against women in pursuit of the ignoble task of keeping them in their place.

Given the stifling grip of structures of patriarchy, it is scant wonder that the representation of women in legislatures, whether Parliament or state assemblies, is so low. In India, women constitute 48 per cent of the population, but hold hardly 12 per cent of the seats in legislative forums. This results in gross under-representation.

In a democracy, all citizens have the right to voice, that is, the right to participate in debates in the public sphere and the right to be represented in decision-making bodies through electoral means. Unfortunately, we cannot be sure that the interests of women in a patriarchal society will be adequately represented in the legislative assembly by male representatives.

We also cannot be assured that women in India will be given enough space in the public sphere to express their views. Though representatives who are elected on the basis of geographically delineated constituencies are expected to proxy for all voters, including those who did not vote for them, in societies dominated by patriarchy, adequate representation of women by male members is debatable, and most probably negligible.

Lack of representation in decision-making bodies is worrying because every morning, newspapers tell us of some bestiality inflicted upon the bodies and the psyches of women of all ages. News headlines tell us how women are targeted in perverse ways by mobs. And if women are not represented in legislative bodies or in decision-making institutions, there will be few people to speak up for them.

On the other hand, the ideology of patriarchy has drawn enough supporters to either neglect women’s interests, or outvote them. Vulnerability is exacerbated if women are further pushed to the margins of society through threats, intimidation, and violence.

It is not surprising that vulnerable women are likely to be socially and economically marginalised, politically insignificant in terms of the politics of “voice” as distinct from the “vote”, humiliated, dismissed, and subjected to intense disrespect in and through the practices of everyday life. This compromises democracy because some citizens do not possess full rights just because they belong to a section of people that has been maligned and denigrated.

In a society dominated by the self-arrogated spokespersons of patriarchy, women are at risk in two ways. One, they continue to be subjected to vicious and perverse stereotyping. Two, if women are diminished in the public eye, they can easily come to harm. All human beings have rights simply because they are human and we need no other justification for the recognition that people have rights. But if individual citizens are denied rights simply because their gender is cast in destructive ways, their rights are violated.

Women might not have committed any crime, done anyone an injury, broken the law, or acted in a manner that is considered disorderly. And yet they are harmed bodily, mentally, and economically, and denigrated socially only because they are members of a gender that has been disparaged in language and in action.

Therefore, protection for women requires special measures, such as guaranteed representation in Parliament. Special representation is not an exception to the democratic principle, it is a condition for the fulfilment of democracy, notably equality, freedom, and justice.

The Violence in our Bones

Excerpted with permission from The Violence in Our Bones: Mapping the Deadly Fault Lines Within Indian Society, Neera Chandhoke, Alpeh Book Company.