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Making women’s security a prime concern

Nov 25, 2008

Women’s physical survival and safety must be viewed as a security issue and violence against women is as much a social concern as war, famine or terrorism, says political scientist Swarna Rajagopalan. The Violence Against Women fortnight (November 25 to December 10) kicks off today internationally.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, there is consensus that something important has shifted in the real world that necessitates a shift in security thinking.

It is now acknowledged that more wars take place within States than across them. State-building has been identified as a leading source of insecurity (for States by some, for everyone by others).

Famine on a large scale challenges the survival of societies; as do disasters that can disrupt the fabric of social relationships. Climate change threatens small island-states like the Maldives, whose new president is now shopping for land to resettle his people in anticipation that the atoll-state will be consumed by rising sea-levels.

Those who write on non-traditional security admit migration and trafficking into their research agendas, understanding that these challenge the very foundations of the nation-state system.

Struggles over land, livelihood and food are also now recognised as admissible into this agenda in the same way as militancy is. The reconstruction of society after a conflict, somewhere at the conjunction of the old nation-building and development agendas, is also accepted as a security subject.

VAW not a security issue

This catholic embrace stops short of women’s bodies. Violence against women is still not quite a security issue, unless it occurs in the context of one of the above situations or a traditional security crisis. Common, garden variety threats to the physical survival and safety of women are where the line is drawn, either out of an ingrained sense that home and person are not appropriate objects of interest for this field or as a compromise in the face of the protest that no field can include everything.

Discrimination in nutrition, healthcare and schooling apart, girls in situations of poverty are at risk of trafficking and early marriage

As a prelude to analysing this discourse that excludes women’s physical survival and safety, let us take a quick look at some of the things we include under the ‘violence against women’ (henceforth, VAW) rubric. Women experience physical insecurity both by virtue of their position within a given socio-economic structure and by virtue of where they find themselves physically.

Patriarchal societies value women first and foremost as mothers. Maternal health is therefore a useful point of departure for this review. A Unicef report states that one woman dies every five minutes of a pregnancy-related complication.

One in every 70 women is at risk of dying from pregnancy-related causes and the risk is even greater for women below 24.

The Maternal Mortality Ratio for Indian women is estimated at anywhere between 300 and 500 per 100,000 live births, depending on the source you consult.

Debates over the woman’s right to choose versus the foetus’s right to be born are entering Indian discourse, obscuring the continuum between a prenatal death sentence by virtue of sex and the woman’s lack of reproductive autonomy.

In India, statistics about sex selective abortions begin with the dramatic figure of about 10 million, such abortions being performed over the last quarter-century and end with the horrific count of 3 million female foetuses being aborted annually. Both the right of the girl-child to be born and the long-term consequences for women and society are the issue here.

Discrimination in matters of nutrition, healthcare and schooling apart, girls in situations of poverty are at risk of trafficking and early marriage. A majority of girls become victims of trafficking at a very early age, and about 35% of them blamed their families for their fate.

54% of Indian women believe husbands have the right to beat their wives, according to the National Family Health Survey

Families are also responsible for forcing girls into early marriages. More than half of India’s girls marry before 18, and experience much greater risk of pregnancy-related complications as well as domestic violence. Add to this the threat of child sexual abuse, mostly at the hands of family members, and Indian girls do not seem to lead very secure lives.

A serious impediment to simple improvements in a girl’s life is the threat of street sexual harassment. Being followed on the way to school, cat-calls at the bus-stop, being groped or pinched on a bus or being stalked foreshadow sexual violence.

The threat of being harassed intimidates girls and, in a society that places a premium on virginity, persuades parents to stop their schooling at puberty. Lacking education, confidence or self-esteem, the girl has no inner defences against exploitation and society provides no external protections either.

Marriage is seen as a solution to the problem of protecting a girl from the dangers of the public arena. Dowry, however, is one of the core causes of male-child preference. The practice of demanding and giving dowries has been spreading to communities where it was hitherto unknown.

Dissatisfaction and avarice have combined to create social conditions where over 6,000 girls lose their lives annually in dowry-related deaths, according to the NCRB.

Strict laws do not seem to deter families from demanding nor from feeling like their prestige is attached to giving.

A shamefully large percentage of Indian women experience domestic violence. Nearly 37% of married women have experienced violence at some point and, perhaps more alarming, 54% of Indian women believe husbands have the right to beat their wives, according to the National Family Health Survey.

Social and economic compulsions keep women in abusive marriages and, given the magnitude of the problem, there are still too few helplines and shelters.

Infamous advice from India’s mythical lawgiver, Manu, enjoins women to seek the protection of their fathers, husbands and sons. Where fathers and husbands fail women, sons often do so as well. The abandoned widows of Vrindavan and Varanasi are only the most dramatic instance of the cruelty of Indian society towards its elders.

In homes around the country, senior citizens, particularly elderly, widowed women, are often subject to neglect and emotional abuse. Where cultural mores still constrain many from actually abandoning their ageing parents, what seniors surveyed described as ‘disrespect’ in fact borders on physical abuse.

This random review illustrates how unsafe women are in a variety of settings and roles. Considering that they constitute almost half a

Redefining security

One reason is the binary view of the public and private spheres which security as a field inherits from traditional political philosophy. On the contrary, feminists argue that the personal is political.

The contemporary exercise of redefining security is the search for a middle ground between these positions. Somewhere between a social perspective that will not cross the threshold of a home or a relationship and one that would dismiss the distance between the two sides of the threshold, is an older political debate relating to personal freedom and privacy.

Where violence is involved, collective attention and consideration are a must, whether it is the State or society

How do we define where the limits lie in the relationship between the individual and the collective? Once crossed, what is an appropriate issue for intervention and what is off-limits?

New security thinking has added a plethora of new referents for ‘security’ (a confounding plethora, traditionalists might say). That is, when we ask the question ‘whose security,’ we now answer with a much longer list than ‘State’ or ‘nation-state.’

Moreover, when we ask who creates insecurity, security scholars or policymakers shy away less from adding the State itself to the list. However, our view of who should create security still somehow ends up being State-centric.

This blindsides us. Where we will not let the State step in, whether from a minimalist State perspective or otherwise, we still challenge its inaction (and its inability to act). Can the State enter kitchens in an anticipatory exercise to prevent kerosene from being poured over new brides? Can the State be a presence in the bedroom when a wife is repeatedly raped by her husband? Should the State uphold the mother’s right to choose to have a child or should it allow her to decide not to have a girl-child?

Some of these questions have been resolved in practice. The Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act, 1994 is an example, as is the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2006.

But their failure to completely stop the practices they condemn suggests that even a State with tremendous reach, awesome enforcement capability and reasonable political will cannot stop individuals from perpetrating violent acts sanguinely.

Going beyond the law

Neighbours, extended family and alert local civil society organisations can go much further than a battery of laws and a police force. Social pressure and ostracism are greater deterrents than the likelihood that the victim or her supporters will term their experience as ‘abuse’ and report it to the police. Those who mistreat women must take comfort in the lack of social support options available to them, so that they must return to the site of abuse sooner or later.

Exercise of redefining ‘security’ is remembering fundamental political questions that are pre-requisite to alert, vigilant citizenship

The next frontier in this exercise of re-imagining security then is to explore the role of civil society in creating security (and insecurity). Citizen-driven initiatives are the order of the day with regard to most other issues, be it mohalla committees to preserve communal harmony or neighbourhood environmental groups like EXNORA.

What is the scope for citizen action to create security for women within and outside the home? What ethical and political issues are involved with initiating such action? Realistic assessments of what can be achieved are also needed, for which documentation of existing civil society efforts is important.

There is another factor: cultural relativism and the reluctance of contemporary State and society in an age of political correctness. Patriarchal politics makes of women’s bodies easy shorthand for the politics of group identity.

Women then carry the burden of socialisation, cultural preservation and physically standing for the community’s integrity and survival. If attacks on women are an easy way of expressing hostility towards a community, restrictions on women are a way for the community to articulate its borders.

“We are X-Y-Z and therefore we require this or that of our women.” The rationale is ‘protection’ of the women, ergo, the community. A strange liberal inhibition prevents us from completely challenging these for fear of offending others or limiting the right of each community to define itself uniquely.

Eggshell-walking and dogma are both inimical to an idea of security that is equitable as well as liberal.

Why would we want to include violence against women in the security agenda? The most obvious reason is a political argument that anything that affects the survival of such a large part of society belongs in any discussion about survival and well-being.

Second, using the term ‘security’ adds political leverage to any issue – visibility is greater, resources flow more easily and a sense of urgency is generated that may otherwise be lacking.

Third, where violence is involved, collective attention and consideration are a must, and whether it is the State or society, it is imperative that one kind of violence merits the same attention as another. We cannot choose to which category of violence we will pay attention on the basis of motivation or victim identity.

Arguments can also be made that link violence against women to larger consequences for society and State. Unbalanced sex ratios increase the likelihood of violence in society. Violence against women has epidemic qualities that place a large burden on the public health system. Fewer adults able to work optimally and children desensitised to violence are other consequences. However, these instrumental arguments—take care of this so you can move on and do other things—are less persuasive than the argument that the security of female citizens is intrinsically a good thing and as much a social concern as war, famine or terrorism.

From intellectual and political standpoints, a discussion about violence against women as insecurity raises very interesting questions. Are there drawbacks to ‘securitising’ violence against women? Who will act to assure their security? What can we say about the relationship between State, society and female citizens based on the level of willingness to take action on this issue?

Violence against women and women’s security also provides another instance for debating the freedom versus security, private versus public, universal versus relativist and minimalist versus pro-active State binaries that are actually among the oldest questions in politics. Thus, what we have been calling an exercise of redefinition or re-imagining ‘security’ is in fact also an exercise of remembering those fundamental political questions revisiting which is a pre-requisite to alert, vigilant citizenship.

Swarna Rajagopalan is a Chennai-based political scientist specialising in security, broadly defined. She is the founder of Prajnya Initiatives for Peace, Justice and Security.

Source : Infochange
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