The right to health, sexual violence and social change in India

Guest Blogger: Adrianne Walters, Castan Centre Global Intern

Adrianne WaltersAt the start of December 2012, I arrived in Delhi to undertake a 3-month internship with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, as part of the Castan Centre Global Internship Program. Mr Anand Grover, a senior counsel in India and Director of Lawyers Collective, was appointed to the mandate in 2008.

Initially, I sat amongst the passionate staff of the Women’s Rights Initiative (WRI), which forms part of the Lawyers Collective. WRI have campaigned on the issue of domestic violence for many years, contributing to the enactment of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act in 2006. The Act recognises women’s right to secure housing and provides for a system of protection orders. Whilst the Act was an important step in addressing violence against women in India, enforcement and socialisation of the law has been an issue in such a highly patriarchal society.

Recognised as a form of discrimination against women, requiring positive action by Governments to prevent private individuals violating women’s rights, violence against women is pervasive in most societies and severely impacts on the ability of women to enjoy many rights and freedoms, including the right to health, on the basis of equality with men. This has been devastatingly highlighted with the recent gang rape and murder of a female university student in South Delhi, near where I live.

While sexual assault in India is prevalent (it is estimated that a rape is reported by a woman every 20 minutes in India), it often flies under the radar, or goes unreported for various reasons. Many women are victims of sexual violence perpetrated by those closest to them, such as their husband, father, cousin, uncle, brother or neighbour. Such violence typically happens away from prying eyes, within the privacy of homes. Both forms of violence –random ‘public’ violence and intimate ‘private’ violence – are abhorrent. Women must have the right to feel as safe in their home and in public as their male counterparts do. Sadly this is not the case. Even at 6:30pm as I walk home from the Lawyers Collective office in the busy but dark streets, I cannot help but be on my guard, prone to overreaction when a shadow catches my eye, angry that the primary reason I feel like this is because I am female. I am also aware, however, that I have been privileged throughout my life to have always felt safe upon arriving home. The same cannot be said for many women in India, where dowry-related assaults and murders still occur, wife-beating is stated to be acceptable by members of the judiciary, dismissive attitudes are the norm when women report domestic violence to police and rape in marriage is not considered a crime.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not blaming men. I know that most men are as horrified by violence against women as I am. The reality is however, that the consequences are largely borne by women. After the recent gang rape in Delhi many men and women have expressed a belief that men should better protect the women in their lives. However, this undermines equality and perpetuates rather than challenges a patriarchal system in which men control the behaviour of women, often without being conscious of it or with benign intentions.

Politicians have called for the death penalty and chemical castration, finding support with some sectors of the population. Such responses are incongruent with the human rights of offenders, as well as being astonishingly crude responses to such a complex issue. Meanwhile, societal structures and values based on culturally engineered gender stereotypes about the sexuality and inferiority of women continue to pervade everyday life. Such stereotypes, which are accepted by some women as well as men, are harmful and render women vulnerable to violence both in the home and in public. For example, distinguishing rape in marriage from rape outside of marriage perpetuates notions of ownership and control over woman that have traditionally attached to marriage in many cultures around the world, including Australia. The failure to criminalise rape in marriage also drives wrongful gender stereotypes about the ‘sexual purity’ of women by only condemning sexual assaults that are seen to tarnish the morality of unmarried women.

Reforms such as the recently established ‘fast-track courts’ in India, in which sexual assault cases will be prioritised and heard with minimum possible delay, will play an important role in reducing the suffering that traumatised victims experience with the inordinate delays that characterise the Indian courts. Of course, the right to a fair trial for alleged perpetrators must also be respected. In discussing the matter with my colleagues and friends in Delhi, a commonly expressed opinion is the need for long-term systemic cultural change, challenging structures and practices associated with patriarchy, in order to prevent sexual violence happening in the first place. This is a massive challenge, not just in India, but in many countries and communities around the world.

The tragic gang rape has impassioned many Indian women and, encouragingly, some men to publicly demand gender equality and safety for women. On that note, it was inspiring to watch a Q and A-type discussion show on Indian television last week, in which Mr Grover appeared as a panellist and demonstrated tremendous respect for the opinions and ideas for change expressed by women on the panel and in the audience. This respect is something that I am used to seeing him display in the Lawyers Collective office. Change cannot be cultivated by women alone. Simply blaming men for violence against women is unhelpful and will result in defensive responses, rather than encouraging engagement in the issue. Men have an essential role to play in changing attitudes towards women, but it is essential that women be respected as equals and the driving participants in any reform process.

Violence against women is not unique to India. Most societies have been built upon patriarchal values and traditions, which provide the foundation for the exercise of various forms of control, including violence, over women. Enacting radical sanctions against one narrowly-defined form of violence and telling women not to go out alone at night will not make women safer or equal to men. Long-term cultural change is needed and it will only be achieved by challenging the causes and consequences of violence against women and ensuring the participation of women in any reform process.

Adrianne is undertaking her Global Internship with the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, in Delhi, India.  This is an edited version of a blog post that first appeared on the Castan Centre Global Interns Blog Site. Read the full version here. You can also read Arianne’s profile here.

2 responses to “The right to health, sexual violence and social change in India”

  1. Such incidents have been occurring and will continue to occur unless we, the people, take responsibility and do every bit required to bring about the change. We need to protest; we need to become more cautious, alert, helpful and responsible;

    We no more need ‘Rights Activists’! We need ‘Responsibility Activists’! Join the brigade. Tweet using #ITakeResponsibility.

  2. It has been a month since the fatal rape of a 23-year-old woman by a gang of six men on a moving bus in South Delhi captured headlines in India and around the world. In Delhi, where I live and work, the incident continues to pervade both the media and private conversations as people of all walks of life struggle to come to terms with the horrific crime and its aftermath. Although rapes are reported in Indian newspapers almost every day, the circumstances surrounding this one, combined with simmering public frustration with the police and a range of other issues, triggered mass protests and an overdue national debate on the problem of violence against women in India and what should be done about it.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: