MUMBAI, India — A woman was burned alive, on the street, in front of a busy railway station in June. The crime did not occur behind closed doors. She was doused with kerosene and set alight in front of the people hurrying to work here in India’s largest city, formerly called Bombay.
She screamed for help. No one stopped. Only after she was almost dead, with burns on 95 percent of her body, did some people begin to pour water over her. A social worker called the police and they managed to admit the woman to a nearby hospital. By then it was too late. The woman died.
What was this woman’s "crime?" This 41-year-old typist, a single woman who looked after an aging parent, had refused to marry an admirer. The spurned suitor decided to punish her by killing her and then attempted to kill himself. She died. He survived and will face the court for his crime.
This ghastly incident in Mumbai is an illustration not only of the indifference that big cities breed in people. It also shows that men’s motives for attacking women have not changed; they are as old as the hills.
A new decade, a new century, a new millennium has not altered the mindset where you subject to violence, or destroy, those who are different or who disagree. Whether it is another community, another caste or another gender, this is the attitude. As civilization progresses, people are supposed to be able to talk, to negotiate, to arrive at mutually acceptable solutions without bludgeoning each other.
Many of the stories that appear in Indian newspapers reveal that women who assert even basic rights, such as the right to choose whether to marry, or who to marry, are being punished. Their parents punish them for defying their diktat. The men they spurn attack them. And if they give in and agree to get married, the parents of their husband pick on them.
This violence against women has some very real repercussions. India is also one of the few countries in the world where there is a declining sex ratio, 927 women to every 1,000 men.
And the practice of aborting female fetuses also continues, because women are so afraid to give birth to an unwanted girl child that they prefer to detect the sex of the fetus and abort if it is female. Traditionally, girls are seen as a burden, a person who will require dowry gifts for another family, instead of a son whose bride will enrich his own family.
The violence has a direct link to the economic status of women.
Despite a law that bans dowry–money and gifts that a girl’s family is expected to give the bridegroom–the custom continues. And women who arrive in their marital home without what is considered an "adequate" dowry are mocked, tortured and sometimes killed.
Bride burnings–the so-called accidental dowry deaths that were regularly reported in the late 1970s and which led to a law outlawing dowry–have not yet disappeared. Statistics show that these murders have increased as the population has become economically better off and more avaricious for the benefits that a new bride’s family can bestow.
Neither have other forms of violence. There are frequent reports of women who have acid thrown in their faces for having refused a man, women who are stabbed or set on fire like the woman in Mumbai. Recently, a young woman of Indian origin from Canada was killed for having defied her parents and married a man of her choice from an Indian village. The man was also killed.
Each such reported incident sets off shock waves for a few days–and then life returns to normal.
On paper India has some of the most enlightened laws relating to women’s rights. However, not only have inscribed legal protections failed to reduce the violence against women, but in some instances, the attacks and assaults have increased. The latest data from the National Crime Records Bureau show a 40 percent increase in reported incidents of sexual harassment and a 15.2 percent increase in dowry deaths between 1998 and 1999.
The Mumbai torching outside the railway station highlights the reality that laws alone cannot deal with crimes against women.
The incident reveals that women can continue to press for stronger laws and push for more effective implementation. But as long as this type of attitude prevails–when there is no tolerance of another perspective, where women are not given the right to choose or to refuse–then no law can protect them.
Kalpana Sharma is Deputy Editor of The Hindu, a prominent English-language Indian newspaper.