is of course well-known that violence against women
has deeply systemic roots, and that there is a "normalisation"
of such violence where the economic and social status
of women is already low. It is also increasingly recognised
that such violence takes many forms. In addition to
the overt physical violence (on which more below) there
are what could be called "structural" forms of violence
through economic, social and cultural processes.
Economic violence ranges from the denial of property
to women, the use of their unpaid labour as a norm in
households, the denial of equal access to education
and discrimination in labour markets, unequal access
to credit and other markets to practices such as dowry
payments. Social violence include not only various forms
of discrimination and curbs on women’s mobility and
freedom, but also practices such as early marriage,
pressure to bear male children, disparities in access
to nutrition and health, as well as to education. Cultural
norms that oppress women and girls often have a strong
psychological element to them, as patterns of objectification
and subjugation can lead to self-oppression and low
In addition, of course, the many forms of direct physical
violence against women also tend to have strong links
with economic, social and material processes. This operates
throughout the life-cycle of women. Thus, pre-natal
sex selection and female infanticide are much more common
where female progeny are seen as an economic or social
burden. Sexual abuse, including in its worst form of
rape, can reflect not only patriarchal desires for control
and punishment but also the lack of economic protection
of the victims.
Violence associated with practices such as dowry, as
in dowry deaths, has a very obvious material link. But
even domestic and marital abuse is made more possible
when women have fewer options for escape out of such
oppressive relationships because of lack of assets or
economic security in the form of gainful occupations.
So lack of economic security becomes a deterrent to
complaint or resistance by women victims. Even apparently
non-economic atrocities such as "honour killings" have
often been found to have underlying economic motivations,
such as the desire to ensure control of land and other
assets within particular communities, and prevent inheritance
by children of "mixed" marriages.
Trafficking of women and girl children in turn has strong
material underpinnings. The association of trafficking
with poverty is obvious and well-known. But there needs
to be more appreciation of the fact that in many cases,
as Radhika Coomaraswamy has pointed out, "trafficking
is really abuse of the desire to migrate", which essentially
reflects poor material conditions and oppressive social
constraints in the place of origin.
Even violence against older women, and particularly
widows, often has a strong economic basis – either in
the need of the perpetrators to control the family property
or to avoid expenditure on the consumption of someone
who is less able to provide unpaid labour for the household.
So there is a strong though complex relationship between
violence against women and economic processes. This
means that the evidence of increasing violence against
women in India in the past decade must have something
to do with the very rapid economic changes that have
also been so apparent over this period.
Over the past two decades, the Indian economy has been
thrown more open to market processes than ever before,
and these market processes have been regional, national
and international. This period has been associated with
a tendency towards privatisation of state assets, reduction
in crucial government investment, especially in infrastructure
areas, reduced per capita public spending on health,
reduced public expenditure in the rural areas generally,
deregulation of and a number of tax benefits and other
sops provided to large domestic and multinational capital,
trade liberalisation which has affected the viability
of small scale manufacturing units and agriculturalists,
even as it has created more export possibilities for
textiles and IT-enabled services.
All this in turn has created both very rapid growth
in some sectors, and stagnation or worse in other sectors
and regions. Economic inequalities have increased quite
substantially, both spatially and within regions, and
material insecurities have increased, not only for the
poor but even for more prosperous groups.
The most significant feature that affects the lives
of people is employment and the conditions of livelihood.
This is where the past decade has created growing insecurity.
The difficulty of finding remunerative work opportunities
has become the single most important problem for large
sections of the population. Wage employment of all kinds
has fallen as a share of total employment, and self-employment
has emerged as the fastest growing form even in non-agriculture,
now accounting for around half of the workforce. But
self-employed, especially those engaged in relatively
less skilled and less productive occupations, face daily
problems of survival, creating additional tensions.
Agriculturalists continue to face huge problems of viability
as cultivators because of the combination of threats
from highly subsidised imports which are keeping prices
down, and rising costs because of withdrawal of subsidies.
It is striking to note that the crisis in agriculture,
which is especially marked in some pockets of rain-fed
cultivation, has continued even as international prices
of crops have increased in the past few years, suggesting
that domestic policy and institutional failures have
been significant in this.
In the urban areas, the rate of overall employment generation
has been slightly better, but not in the formal sector,
where employment has barely grown at all. There has
been some growth in services employment, and especially
in IT-enabled services that has reduced the rate of
educated unemployment. But even in the urban areas,
the problem of lack of sufficient employment for all
those who need to work, remains significant. For less
skilled workers, and especially women, the problem of
access to productive work is especially acute.
Women are being drawn into the paid labour force in
some more regressive ways, in the form of home-based
work as part of large chains of production organised
by large capitalists, or as low-paid and exploited service
sector workers. The largest increase in regular employment
of urban women (amounting to around 3 million new workers)
between 1999-2000 and 2004-05 was as domestic servants.
In addition, there is the problem of reduced security
of work and of incomes generally. Of course this is
most marked for wage workers in less skilled and more
unstable occupations. That is why the National Sample
Survey of 2004-05 could find that 80 per cent of workers
in India earn less than Rs. 20 per day. But it is ironically
true that even in the higher ends of the job spectrum,
employment has become more volatile and fragile, and
the earlier security that was implicit in formal sector
employment has all but disappeared in the new contracts.
In addition, even non-wage incomes are now less secure
and more volatile, simply because many markets, and
the income accruing from them, fluctuate much more wildly
than they did in the past.
Material insecurity has been increasingly expressed
in other negative features, most notably food consumption.
Food insecurity has once again become an important national
issue, not only for traditionally deprived groups, but
in the aggregate. Foodgrain availability per head of
population for the economy as a whole has been lower
on average in the past few years, than even thirty years
ago. Per capita calorie consumption, even for the poorest
forty per cent of the population, has also declined.
There have also been evident declines in the availability
of basic public services in the areas of health and
sanitation. The decline in public expenditure investment
has not only meant that the rate of expansion of much-needed
health facilities has declines. The cuts in public expenditure
have also meant that maintenance and repair of such
facilities, as well as basic running expenditures, are
not provided, so that the actual quality of and access
to public health and sanitation facilities has declined.
This has affected both prevented preventive and curative
health care in the public sector, which in turn means
that even poor households are forced to undertake much
more expenditure on private health care, even when this
cuts into the incomes necessary for sheer physical survival.
Naturally, this tends to affect women and girl children
more adversely, and compounds the effects of gender
discrimination in nutrition as well. There are even
some states where the rates of child immunisation have
actually worsened in recent years, and this includes
apparently "fast-growing" states like Gujarat.
Along with this, the growing emphasis on markets has
implied the commoditisation of many aspects of life
that were earlier seen as either naturally provided
by states and communities, or simply not subject to
market transaction and property relations. Thus, the
inability or refusal of the government to provide safe
drinking water has led to the explosive growth of a
bottled water industry. A whole range of previously
services and utilities like power distribution and telecommunications
have been privatised. Even the growing recognition accorded
to intellectual property rights marks the entry of markets
into ever newer spheres.
Of course, markets imply marketing and drawing more
and more consumers into the web of purchase through
advertising and attempts to manipulate peoples’ tastes
and choices. In this effort, advertising companies have
notoriously used women as objects to purvey their products.
The dual relationship with women, as objects to be used
in selling goods, and as a huge potential market for
goods, creates a peculiar process whereby women are
encouraged and persuaded to participate actively in
their own objectification. The huge media attention
given to beauty contests, "successful" models, and the
like, all feed into the rapidly expanding beauty industry,
which includes not only cosmetics and beauty aids, but
slimming agents, beauty parlours, weight loss clinics,
and so on. Many of these contribute to the most undesirable
and backward attitudes to both women and their appearance,
such as the advertisements for fairness cream that emphasise
that it is necessary to be fair to make a "good" marriage,
which is in turn seen as the basic goal of a woman.
All this seems plausible enough, but many would argue
that the link between all this and violence against
women is not all that obvious. But there are identifiable
mechanisms for this.
The most basic mechanism comes from the sheer fact of
greater material insecurity. As ordinary life becomes
more volatile, insecure and unpredictable in various
ways, people search for security in whatever ways they
can muster. Precisely because some degree of certainty
is seen as a comfort, often the more rigid a system
is (whether it is a set of intellectual and spiritual
beliefs, or a religious order, or a relatively close
grouping claiming a particular special social identity)
the more attractive it perversely becomes. (This may
explain why some of the more rigidly structured and
sectarian religious and social groups that strongly
emphasise patriarchy have attracted growing following
in recent times.)
And there is a strong undercurrent of violence in all
this. The tendency towards violence of various sorts
– towards other "communities" or caste groups, and especially
towards women – can be seen as another reflection and
result of the economic and social processes outlined
earlier. The greater insecurity and sheer difficulty
of ordinary life, the complications and worries involved
in providing for basic needs, all make for much greater
levels of everyday irritation in people. This can only
rarely find an outlet in places of work, and requires
other means of expression.
In addition, the massive increase in inequality, the
growth of rampant consumerism, and the explosion of
new media that brings all the lavish new lifestyles
into open public view, all serve to add to the resentment
and frustration of have-nots. The gap between aspiration
and reality becomes ever wider, and this creates a strong
urge to somehow get at those who are seen as "responsible".
Of course, the real agents of these processes – the
unresponsive government, the large companies and multinationals,
the foreign investors – are all too large, too distant
and too powerful to be touched. How much easier, then,
to direct one’s ire against those who are seen as more
easily attacked – minority communities or lower caste
groups, women within and outside the household, and
so on. The substantial increase in violence against
women is not just because of higher reporting of incidents,
but because of this process which results in an actual
increase in the number of such crimes.
The other philosophy that is invoked and sought to be
spread is that which lies at the heart of the reliance
on markets – individualism. The "competitive spirit"
is unleashed and used to make people feel that it is
each man or woman for himself or herself, and that individuals
can succeed in making gains at the expense of others
in their own social group. This has two significant
effects that further aggravate problems of violence:
it makes each act that of an individual, and it reduces
the possibility of solidarity among victims and possibilities
of collective action.
That is why it is so important to recognise and trace
the economic roots of violence against women. It is
essential not only to mobilise for policies that shape
the state and societal response to individual acts of
violence, but also to change the processes of liberalisation
and corporate globalisation that have indirectly aided
such violence in general.