“It was horrifying; I still get nightmares. It was the worst phase of my life. I was married against my wishes and then I had to face so much violence and pain on a daily basis.” Meena Devi, a 17-year-old from India, reported her experience of child marriage and abuse to The Telegraph. Her words show the disturbing reality that millions of women worldwide endure, and now Devi’s home country of India is ranked the most dangerous place in the world for women. The new ranking comes from the recently published study by Thomson Reuters. India’s high rates of sexual violence, lack of access to justice in rape cases, child marriage, female feticide, and human trafficking have led to India’s new disturbing rank. India outranked Syria and Afghanistan – labelled the second and third most dangerous countries – which are both currently at war. The report based its findings on a survey of 548 experts on women’s issues, which has ignited furious debate about the accuracy of the report’s ranking system. Rekha Sharma, Chairperson for India’s National Commission for Women, rejected the ranking because the sample size was too small. Sharma further stated that “there is no way that we could be ranked number 1 in such a survey. The countries that have been ranked after India have women who are not even allowed to speak in public.” Despite differing opinions on the report, India does have a number of issues impacting the safety and wellbeing of its women and girls.
India’s rank heavily reflects the country’s high rates of rape and child marriage. India had 38,947 reported rapes in 2016, with rape rates currently on the rise. The study’s data also notes that crimes against women in India rose by over 83 per cent between 2007 and 2016, and that four cases of rape occurred every hour. Furthermore, according to the Washington Post, the Indian government has estimated that there are 63 million “missing” women in the country because of sex-selective abortion, as well as 21 million unwanted girls. However, India’s rate of rape per 100,000 people remains far lower than some Western countries, including the United States, which experts believe is in part due to years of fear and underreporting. There is also the issue of government and police corruption, and the shielding of rapists in India. In recent months, a number of shocking cases involving the rape and murder of children and women have received international media attention and led to major protests. Such protests have resulted in the implementation of the death penalty for those convicted.
India’s rank also displays the country’s issue of child marriage. India has the most child brides in the world, although some progress has been made. Unicef has reported a decline in child marriages over the last 10 years, with 27 per cent of girls getting married before their 18th birthday as opposed to 47 per cent a decade ago. India is ranked at 113 on Save the Children’s End of Childhood Index 2018, which organizes 175 countries by the severity of their threats on childhood as a result of “poor health, malnutrition, exclusion from education, child labour, child marriage, early pregnancy and extreme violence.” India has improved by three rankings, and Save the Children Index attributed this improvement to reduced rates of child marriage. Yet despite these improvements, millions of young girls are still impacted by the tradition of child marriage, which causes both mental and physical harm. Dr. Jitender Chaturvedi, founder of the Developmental Association for Human Advancement (DEHAT), reported on issues within the Shravasti district in Uttar Pradesh to The Telegraph. Dr. Chaturvedi explained that “Shravasti suffers from some of the worst population indicators in India with literacy rates below 50 per cent (37 per cent for women). A scary 83 per cent of girls in Shravasti marry before age 18, which is far above state and national average. And out of the total child births in Shravasti, 10.7 per cent are born to girls under 18. It is a district in dire state.” Dr. Chaturvdei further stated that many activists are working on the elimination of child marriage across India, and that many schools have been established in the Shravasti district to provide free education to children. “Of the 1,615 girls in our 50 education centers, 436 (27 per cent) were married,” and “[w]e need to keep changing that. Primary reasons for child marriages include illiteracy, poverty, traditional practice, joint families, social pressure, fear of giving dowry and girls being considered as a burden.” Dr. Chaturvdei believes that educating families is the key to shifting cultural perspectives. DEHAT considers its focus to be connecting with families and educating them, and that “its working.” DEHAT has currently prevented 42 child marriages across 550 villages, and nine villages have become completely child marriage free.
The Indian government has responded to the country’s high rates of violence against women by amending its Criminal Law (Amendment Act) in 2013. Sentences are now 20 years for rapists and voyeurs, while stalking or trafficking women has been criminalized. Despite these laws, violent and sexual crimes against women have been on the rise. More recently, capital punishment has been allowed for anyone convicted of raping children under the age of 12. However, there is a current global shift of countries abolishing capital punishment, as it goes against human rights progression. There is also little evidence that capital punishment reduces crime rates. Laws regarding child marriage in India are also continually challenged. Since 1978, the minimum legal age for marriage has been 18 for women and 21 for men. Yet, groups such as some Muslim Indian organizations continually seek to enact no minimum age.
It is evident that India is making efforts to reduce violence against women and child marriages, yet challenges still lie ahead. It must be acknowledged that legislation and amendments cannot be considered the only solution to an issue that is unfortunately embedded in India’s history and societal norms. A cultural shift is highly needed in many countries, including India, and education is the key to this change. Education allows girls and their families to have access to more opportunities, prevents poverty, and enables societal and cultural norms to be freely discussed and challenged. Therefore, nongovernmental organizations like DEHAT should be applauded for their focus on education. Not only do children and their families need to be educated, but also government officials, police officers and politicians who uphold or create the law.
It is understandable that many critics believe India’s new rank is unjustified. However, whether or not the ranking is entirely correct is not the problem; the issue is that there are many girls and women in India who suffer from violence, rape, abuse, and child marriage. These issues will not be easily or quickly resolved, but legislation and widespread education can create a cultural shift which can overtime help change a nations perspective.