International Day of the Girl Child 2020 -- how some equals are more equal than others

TW : The following article mentions instances of sexual assault and physical violence which some viewers may find distressing.

Twenty years ago, a policy agenda known as the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action culminated to push forward the idea of gender equality. The International Day of the Girl Child is dedicated to promoting this unfinished agenda by recognizing the individual value of each adolescent girl’s voice and the theme for this year is “My Voice, Our Equal Future.”

‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ - Martin Luther King Junior

One of the key markers of gender inequality is gender-based violence. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, 87 women were raped every day in India in 2019. Mint, a Delhi-based media house analyzed the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) in 2015-16 which showed that only a minuscule portion of incidents of sexual violence is reported to the police. “... An estimated 99.1% of sexual violence cases are not reported, and in most such instances, the perpetrator is the husband of the victim.” While the majority of the cases are not registered, those that do lack proper investigation.

Last month, Hathras witnessed a heinous gang- rape against a 19-year-old female teenager. She was discovered by her mother in the neighbour’s (Upper Caste Thakurs) crop fields. “My daughter was lying naked with her tongue protruding from her mouth. Her eyes were bulging out and she was bleeding from her mouth, her neck and there was blood near her eyes. I also noticed bleeding from her vagina. I quickly covered her with the pallu (edge of dupatta) of my saree and started screaming.”

She was physically assaulted by four men, her spine was fractured, her neck had strangulation marks and her tongue had a big gash. She made a dying declaration in the hospital on tape accusing the men of the force inflicted on her. The forensics did not have sufficient evidence to support this claim. This evidence was taken 11 days after the gang rape, drastically reducing the capacity of the perpetrator’s DNA to be found on the victim’s body. According to BBC, a gynaecologist at one of the hospitals where the victim was initially treated had personally interviewed and examined the Hathras girl. In this gynaecologist’s report, there was evidence that the girl had suffered from the use of force and there had been a "complete vaginal penetration with a penis."

The victim’s neglectful treatment by the police and hospitals alike has been attributed to the differences in their caste levels. The four men are ‘upper-class’ Thakurs while she was a Dalit. Her brother-in-law told Newslaundry, “People here still practise untouchability. Going past our households lowers their dignity. Our grandparents still stand up if one of them passes by. You will never find a Thakur or Brahmin entering our houses and if they need to tell us something, they send a messenger. Our ancestors used to clean their houses every day in exchange for some bread. Today, the Thakurs are angry because we do not clean their houses or give them the respect they think they deserve.”

The political debate surrounding this victim has shifted from the assault she faced to the conspiracies that caused it. While some claim that the girl was honour killed by her own family, others dispute this claim by highlighting the girl’s dying declaration where she explicitly mentioned the use of force / zabardasti by the four men. Her family claims her body was cremated at night by the police despite the family’s objection.

Politicians have tried to use this crime to promote their own ideologies. A BJP leader Ranjeet Srivastava said, “I think usually in such situations when girls are found in millet fields, they usually have an affair. This girl must have called her boyfriend to the fields.” The politician’s comment highlights the regressive mentality that assassinates victims’ character in turn causing the mass under-reporting of sexual assault cases. The narrative that a woman who is not ‘modest’ enough for the society does not deserve equal empathy for non-consensual acts (crimes) has been one of the reasons why some of these incidents happen in the first place. The severity of the crime should remain unchallenged even if the girl had consented to go there with a romantic interest.

These misogynistic statements do not limit themselves to politicians. On June 2020, Justice Krishna Dixit of the Karnataka High Court granted bail to the person who was accused of  rape by saying, “…the explanation offered by the complainant that after the perpetration of the act she was tired and fell asleep, is unbecoming of an Indian woman; that is not the way our women react when they are ravished.” Now, the accused may have been innocent, but denying someone’s account of events by imposing misogynist cultural biases is gatekeeping victims from actually coming forward. Imposing archaic cultural sentiments to determine the validity of a victim has found its way into professionals who are supposed to perpetuate justice. 

In 2014, a committee of the Delhi Health Department recommended the “two-finger test” in cases of sexual violence where the doctor inserts two fingers in the vagina of the person being examined to check if the person is habituated to sex. These examinations are rooted in biases against the victim, while their needs are often overlooked. Even the capital of the country does not prioritize therapeutic care of the survivors after the crude forensic examinations as none of the public hospitals provide psychological first aid but instead offer references to the Non- Governmental Organizations. One-stop centres, an initiative taken up after the Nirbhaya gang-rape incident were designed to offer temporary shelters to victims of physical and sexual violence, yet we still have to see mass ground root implementation for the same. If the Hathras victim had been able to get immediate care in a similar facility, her chances of survival may have drastically improved. 

Women fought for their voting rights in the West to gain political equality. India was proud to say it followed the principles of Universal Adult Suffrage since the beginning of independence. However, Nirbhaya’s parents, a girl who died after being gang-raped in Delhi in 2012 do not vote anymore. They have lost hope after seeing unfinished promises by the political parties. For them,  it is all a ‘political gimmick’. The promises made to them years ago remain unfulfilled -- the CCTV cameras are yet to be installed, the conviction rate of these cases is below 30% and there is no end to gender-based violence in sight. The ‘Nirbhaya Fund’ that was set up by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) for women’s safety in 2013 has been underutilized by the local governments -- Delhi has used less than five per cent of the fund, while other regions like Manipur, Sikkim and Tripura have not used the fund at all. Out of the ₹1,649 crores sanctioned from the government, only ₹147 crores were utilized by the state governments. The state governments claim that proposals for their expenditures are not accepted by the Empowered Committee set up by the Central Government. 

Time and again, the traction raised against injustice dies before a thorough change has been implemented. While we observe the International Day of Girl Child, let us recognize the value of our individual voices and come together to persistently raise them against the unrighteousness faced by women who are subject to such heinous atrocities because of their caste, culture, sexual orientation or economic background so that a better future can be paved for our young adolescent girls all around the world.