Violence against Women: Economic Reforms and Increasing Insecurities

Jan 29th 2008, Jayati Ghosh
It 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 self-esteem.

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.

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