The Justice Verma Committee considers that the lack of empowerment of women in India is due to three factors:
a. The inequality perceived and felt by women;
b. De facto inequality;
c. Poverty and lack of power, or, the inability to access authority in equal terms
The violation of human rights pertains to ‘rape cases’ including distorting investigation in rape, pre-conceived notions of ‘honour’, certain regressive court judgments (in some cases, we are told, that the rapist made a magnanimous offer to marry the girl). Thus, complaints of rape become mere matters of formality – low on priority because there is no understanding of the acuteness of the violation of the human rights of a woman and the psychological trauma she undergoes. This is compounded by vulnerabilities emanating from class/caste/community disadvantages and also that of poverty. This has led to a subculture of oppression.
NON-DISCRIMINATION: The Committee considers that non-discrimination is the foundation of any society which is governed by principles of equality based on humanity. However, in a country which mostly follows a patrilineal system, the seeds of discrimination are sown at the lowest social tier itself. Discrimination between sexes in the allocation of scarce resources in various fields such as nutrition, medical care, and education is directly related to the greater desirability of the son and the transferability of the daughter. In most families, girls are taught to see brothers get more and better food. This attitude is internalized by girls often without being conscious of it, but a conscious effort is also made so that the girls inculcate the cultural norms which legitimize a differential treatment between girls and boys1.
Non-discrimination is a wider concept. Non-discrimination is not merely the absence of discrimination. It is an affirmative position, which is called non-discrimination.
Where, then, lies the mismatch in the letter of the law and its spirit?
Law is a normative exercise. What needs to be examined is whether the normative exercise is viewed as a sufficient communication to the society on what is and what is not an offense.
FEAR TO MISS AUTHORITY: Women had dual responsibilities. They also had a reproductive role as a result of which the concept of family and their role in the family was one which was geared to bring up and look after the family. The mere fact that they looked after the family did not in any manner diminish their abilities. They felt tradition-bound and looked after families, but at the same time they were also having the same human curiosities and wanted to study, and sought education. The moment the patriarchal society realized that women if educated, could become independent and could assert authority, it saw a challenge to its authority. It is this perceived challenge of authority which is misplaced and is a result of years and years of past cultural beliefs.
PANCHAYATS: The committee disowns how a set of self-styled bodies like extraconstitutional panchayats2 can decide to outlaw marriages borne out of free choice. There isn’t in the Hindu Marriage Act and in the Smritis and the Dharmashastras restriction to choose their partner.
POLICE: On account of the patriarchal structure the male police officers do not take complaints of rape seriously. The Committee has, during its deliberations, also seen that there is large-scale trafficking of women and female children in India. We have seen that complaints, made by women and trafficked/abused children, are not promptly registered (or at all) by the police.
MALNUTRITION: The State must also, in our view, seriously tackle and attempt to eradicate the evil of malnutrition of women and children. It is sad to note that in spite of several orders of the Supreme Court issuing directions to ensure women and children get mid-day meals, adequate measures have not been taken e.g. on 28th November 2001, this Court directed the State Governments/Union Territories to implement mid-day meal scheme by providing every child in every government and government-aided primary school with a prepared mid-day meal with a minimum content of 300 calories and 8-12 grams of protein each day of school for a minimum of 200 days.3
DOMESTIC VIOLENCE: The prevention of domestic violence having to be enforced through legislation called the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 that is itself an indication of the manner in which women have been disempowered. But the passing of legislation without adequate dissemination of implementing the spirit of the legislation as a part of normative human conduct is missing in Indian executive governance. The translation of legislation into behavioral attitudes is not simply a matter of psychological skill or acquisition but is indeed a charter of obligations enjoined upon the State. The State, which has the resources of the media, educational institutions, and executive governance, must have full-time long-term advisors who would be able to constantly monitor the condition of women from different standpoints and characteristics.1 Towards Equality-Report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India, Sharma K. and Sujaya C.P. (Ed), Pearson, 2012
2 No-constitutional popular tribunal
3 Order of the Supreme Court dated April 20, 2004, in W. P. (C) No. 196 of 2001 (PUCL v. UOI & Ors.)