"There is one universal truth, applicable to all countries, cultures and communities: violence against women is never acceptable, never excusable, never tolerable." - Ban Ki-moon
Observed on 25th November
History- a subject that glorifies our past and allows us to change our present and future. While talking about the history of human society, we see that it is composed of men and women and today, we have more than two genders thriving in our society. But one thing that remains the same is the stratification between different genders. If men constitute half the world, women too live in the other half. Though each human being is born free, in the case of women, the word 'freedom' is a luxury. From being neglected since time immemorial in the name of traditions, customs, family welfare, and of course, gender disadvantages, the status of women in India has been constantly changing over time. Some give her the tag of a mysterious creature, while others remind her to be a dedicated housewife. But seldom do we try to understand her as a person who has a life beyond some designated responsibilities.
Though India has been a patriarchal society since time immemorial, today our country has also become increasingly unsafe for women. Perhaps it is the absurd mentality of society to differentiate men and women based on their biological differences that leads to dominion and oppression of women. In fact, according to a recent survey conducted by Thomson Reuters, India has been ranked first in the list of Most Dangerous Countries For Women In The World. But do you think that this is a recent phenomenon? Violence against women has been going on since ancient times, except for the fact that with every age, the status of women in our country constantly kept on changing.
Today, women in India are crushed under the wheel of declining societal values, but this was not the case during ancient times. During the Vedic age, people had high ideals for womanhood. According to the Rig Veda, men were said to be the guardians of women while the women were protected by the Gods themselves. Men were in no way superior to women and both were given equal status. The age of Upanishads saw great rishis like Gargi and Maitreyi and this period gave women the freedom to own properties. Widows could remarry and women were not forced to seclude themselves from men as they participated in almost every public occasion. Social evils like sati and child marriage were unknown to society. Though the practice of monogamy was quite common, polygamy usually took place among the rich and influential families.
However, with time, the position given to women during Rig Vedic period deteriorated when human beings entered a new era called the later Vedic age. The male counterpart of the society started laying down rules that were unjustifiable to women. Ignoring the identity, integrity, and individuality of women, they were simply reduced to the status of housewives and daughters who were no more considered as a blessing but a curse. Pushing the Indian Society into an unending realm of darkness, people started the Story of Suppression of Indian Womanhood by writing a document called Manusmriti.
The so-called social code of conduct or Manusmriti regarded women as animals who could be beaten anytime and anywhere. They were of the view that if the husband is deceased or has anger issues and beats the wife incessantly, the wife should never cease to respect him, otherwise curses would erase her very existence. Sage Yajnavalkya said that women are nothing but a burden and should be killed immediately after they are born. Yet another absurd document called Taitriya Samhita says that women are only meant for giving sexual satisfaction.
The great texts of Ramayana and Mahabharata too give us instances of physical and mental cruelty against women. When Sita returned from Lanka, she was insulted by the public and questioned about her purity. Even Ram's silence was nothing less than mental violence. The famous incident of Draupadi's Vastraharan by the Kaurava brothers in Mahabharata shows that people viewed women as mere objects who could be tossed around for fun.
During the Buddhist period, women, though actively participated in the public sphere and were also allowed to read and write, they were not allowed to join the sanghas as nuns. Even when Buddha's mother Mahaprajapati requested him to allow her to become a nun and let her join the sangha, Buddha did not agree to her proposal initially, but later he was persuaded by Anand. After a lot of discussions and requests, Buddha finally allowed the inclusion of nuns into the sanghas.
During the Mauryan period, early marriage had become a custom to preserve a woman's bodily purity. Education was like a far-sighted dream since they weren't allowed to study since the Vedic period. According to a law in Manusmriti, women were expected to be dependent on their father during childhood, husband when married, and son when old.
The social status of women further declined during the Gupta period as women were reduced to the status of mere puppets at the hands of men. Though polygamy was prevalent, widows could not remarry and were required to live a life of celibacy. By the time society entered the 18th century, social evils like female infanticide and foeticide, slavery, child marriage, purdah system, jauhar, and sati increased at an alarming rate. Daughters were considered as bad omen and later on when they grew up, they were considered commodities and liability for the family.
Due to the lack of a proper education system and prevalence of superstitions, women were tagged as witches or daayan, who practised witchcraft, black magic, and sorcery. The Devadasi system and polygamy further lowered the position of women. Dowry or stridhana too was considered one of the main reasons why women had to constantly tolerate physical and mental violence. The pressure of dowry pushed them into professions like prostitution and suicides too were a common phenomenon.
When Britishers entered the Indian subcontinent, women were influenced by western ideas and beliefs. Women began getting conscious of their rights started retaliating against any injustice that happened. Various reforms and social movements took place and women participated in large. These movements inspired them to get out of their hell holes and start exploring the real world. Social activists like Raja Rammohun Roy and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar too started the fight for the rights of women in the second half of the 19th century. Acts like Widow Remarriage were passed and social evils like sati were abolished.
There have been some noticeable changes in the lives of women after India gained Independence. Women have gained much-needed freedom and their participation in parliamentary, ministrative, and professional arenas have increased too. Participating in the political arena with equal enthusiasm as men, India has been seeing a significant increase in the population of women. As India entered the 21st century, women were given several constitutional rights such as equality, freedom, opportunity, and protection.
Though this sounds like an ideal environment for women as they wouldn't have to fear anybody, the real situation is somewhat quite different from the utopian society that we envision India to be. Women continue to face the brunt of violence- be it domestic violence or family violence, be it violence in community places or workplace violence, be it mental or physical violence, women still are very much prone to it. We hear of activists speaking out loud in the public to give equal rights to women, to make society safer for them, and to give them equal decision-making opportunities, but seldom does it happen in reality. Even if women are given these facilities, they are still oppressed and suppressed by the male-dominant society to such an extent that it breaks them from within.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau of India, crimes against women have increased by 6.4 percent since 2012 and a crime against a woman is committed every three minutes. In yet another survey, 65 percent of the Indian men have said that women should tolerate violence to keep the household together and they are also of the view that women should be beaten. The types of crimes against women range from honour killings, witchcraft-related murders, female infanticide, and sex-selective abortion, rape, marital rape, human trafficking, and forced prostitution, domestic violence, forced and child marriage, acid attacks, abduction, and perpetuation.
To spread awareness among women not to tolerate any kind of violence, the United Nations celebrates International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on the 25th of November every year. The history behind this date is the infamous assassination of the three Mirabal sisters who were political activists in the Dominican Republic. Thus, the UN resolution was passed and all the countries agreed upon the decision to mark this day as International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women to honour the death of the Mirabal sisters.
In 1995, close to 20 years ago, 189 governments came together in Beijing. They adopted a Platform for Action that spelt out key strategies to end violence against women, empower women, and achieve gender equality. The promises from 20 years ago are still valid today. Together we must make 2015 the year that marks the beginning of the end of gender inequality. Now is the time for action.
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