13.10.09 10:18 Age: 2 yrs

Despite women-friendly laws, discrimination and violence remain, Indian activists say


Despite incentives encouraging girls’ education over the past decade and female students outnumbering male students in Indian colleges, women are not encouraged to work once they marry.

Laws designed to empower and protect women in India have been described as “toothless” by activists who have spoken out against the government’s failure to implement them.


Campaigners from high-profile women’s organizations in India met with a Christian ecumenical team representing the World Council of Churches (WCC) to raise international awareness about violence against women and laws that are supposed to protect women, but don’t.


The WCC Living Letters team travelled to India as part of the WCC’s Decade to Overcome Violence, which will lead to the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation in 2011. In India the team heard stories of violence against women, Dalits and Christians.


“Last year there was a rise in the number of dowry deaths,” said Premindha Bannerjee from the Young Women’s Christian Association at the Centre for Inclusion and Equity in New Delhi on the International Day of Prayer for Peace (21 September).


“We are still putting our heads together to decide what the real cause of dowry murders is,” Bannerjee explained. “The law against dowry murders was effective in the 1980s and 1990s. But after a few High Court cases, it became toothless. There are around 45 laws in India that are very women-friendly, but implementation is very difficult. We have to focus on implementation techniques.”


Bulu Sarin from Christian Aid said that the ambit of violence against women in India had widened from physical violence to include emotional and psychological violence. Women who are mentally harassed now have recourse to the law. The Domestic Violence Prevention Act came into effect in 2005. However, conviction rates against the perpetrators are low as women come up against uncomprehending police officers and judges.


Rape, sexual harassment, female infanticide and a rise in acid attacks against women are other pressing issues facing women in India. The activists also highlighted the secondary role that women are expected to play within the church, adding that much needed to be done to correct the gender imbalance in church leadership. And despite incentives encouraging girls’ education over the past decade and female students outnumbering male students in Indian colleges, women are not encouraged to work once they marry.


“Now we have middle class women coming to us who are educated, but when they marry they discover their husbands do not want them to work,” said Bannerjee. “The husband says, ‘I’m providing you with clothes and with cars so you don’t need to work.’ Officers themselves don’t recognize the emotional violence. They say to these women, ‘Why don’t you wear a sari and be a good wife. If he doesn’t want you to wear jeans, just don’t wear them.’”


Annie Raja, General Secretary of the National Federation of Indian Women, said the women’s movement was fighting for at least 33 percent of seats in parliament to be reserved for women. “Men and women have equal voting rights,” she told the Living Letters team. “But if you look at the number of women in parliament it is something like 10 percent after 62 years of Indian independence.”


Over the past ten years, the women’s movement has become more vocal on the issue of the violence suffered by Dalit women – the outcast group known as "untouchables". Raja explained that although universities are legally required to reserve 27 percent of places for scheduled castes, the law is rarely implemented.



"Indian Christian leaders call for an end to caste-based discrimination, also within churches"


"Christians begin to rebuild their lives in Orissa"


Living Letters visit to India


Photo gallery


WCC programme on solidarity with Dalits for justice and dignity


WCC member churches in India


Decade to Overcome Violence