This year marks the 30th anniversary of the 16 days of activism against gender-based violence, a campaign that is led by activists around the world to call for action against the persistent and continuous violation of the basic rights of women. The campaign started on November 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and will go on until December 10, Human Rights Day.

Though these 16 days of activism are observed in India too, with women’s rights organisations and activists raising awareness around the problem of gender-based violence, crimes against women continues unhindered. In India, sexual violence against women is one of the most prevalent and least recognised human rights violations, which occurs in many forms including domestic violence, sexual assault, public humiliation, trafficking and so-called honour killings.

Gender-based violence is such a high risk that India is globally perceived as the most dangerous place for women according to a poll carried out by Thomson Reuters Foundation. Though the survey was published back in 2018, not much has changed since then.

As per the latest National Family Health Survey (2019-’21), nearly 1.5% of young women in India within the age bracket of 18-29 years have experienced sexual violence. The report added that at least 29.3% of married women have experienced physical, sexual or emotional violence by their spouses.

There also exists reports suggesting that about 50%-70% of women in India have faced some form of domestic violence at least once in their lifetime.

Structural inequalities

These alarming statistics reflect the deeply embedded structural and institutional inequalities – often supported by patriarchal mindsets and gender misogynistic practices – that are the reality for most women in India. The situation has only worsened with the Covid-19 pandemic.

In the last two years of the pandemic, pre-existing social and gender inequalities have been exacerbated as measures to curb the spread of the virus such as restrictions of movement along with disruptions to vital support services have increased women’s exposure to violence.

In New Delhi alone, data released by the police shows an upsurge of 43% in rape cases, which increased from 580 till June 15 last year to 833 this year; molestation jumped by 39% from 733 to 1,022; kidnapping of women from 1,026 to 1,580; female abduction increased from 46 to 159; and dowry deaths from 47 to 56. Similar escalations have been observed in other Indian states too, with women in marginalised communities being especially vulnerable.

The scale of this shadow pandemic of violence against women and girls only reminds us about the need of having contingent mitigating mechanisms for the protection of women and girls with a focus on addressing social norms and power imbalances. But what is even more important is to change the narrative – including sexist and survivor-blaming remarks – that surrounds the problem of gender based violence in India.

To illustrate, after the rape of two minor girls on a beach in Goa, Pramod Sawant (Goa’s Chief Minister) in a debate in the legislature in July stated, “When 14-year-olds stay on the beach the whole night, the parents need to introspect. Just because children don’t listen, we cannot put the responsibility on the government and police.”

A similar lack of empathy on the matter was also visible in Mysuru where a day after the gang rape of a college student near Chamundi foothills, Home Minister Araga Jnanedra in August joked about the incident. “Rape has occurred there [Mysuru]. But Congress is trying to rape the Home Minister here,” he commented.

Such normalisation of violence against women, casualness among Indian political leaders and lack of justice in fact, continues to fuel gender based violence to alarming levels, bringing women’s rights violation to an enormous magnitude. There is an urgent need to shift from the long-dominant narratives that have contributed to the societal acceptance of high levels of sexual violence in the country.

Rewriting the narrative

Rewriting the narrative can in fact, be as simple as calling out sexual harassment, which is being experienced either at work place or home; refraining from using language that objectifies women; and making derogatory remarks.

Another way of reframing this narrative could be through calling upon men and boys from diverse Indian societies to join the initiative for ending gender-based violence and gender inequality. After all, men are the authors as well as beneficiaries of patriarchy.

These small efforts to shift the overarching narrative regarding the problem of sexual violence –driven jointly by the men and women – carries enough potential to bring about real institutional and behavioural changes that are important for the maintenance of women’s security and safeguarding their rights as specified in the Indian Constitution.

While the voices of women activists and survivors of India will continue to reach a crescendo during these 16 days of activism against gender based violence, ending violence against women requires a greater thrust and aggression towards the issue, greater political will among the leaders, more investment, and accountable action.

There in fact, needs to be a realisation – at all levels of the Indian society – that these issues can no longer be sidelined or ignored.

Akanksha Khullar is the Country Coordinator for India at the Women’s Regional Network.