Women in Indian society: reflections from a current India intern

This is the first of a series of blogs done by Holly Peacock, one of Development in Actions India Interns. Holly will discuss her experiences, thoughts, and personal development whilst in India. This blog looks at the treatment of women in Indian society, an issue which has made international news in recent months.

“You’ll never know India, but you’ll fall in love with her.” How right he was, Tony of Kuku Café, Jaisalmer. A jolly twenty-something with a big grin, and a no-doubt well-utilised line – we girls were “Tony’s Angels” (the fact that there were four of us readily overlooked). I know I’ll never fully understand India but I want to try. I want to at least attempt to know this land and her one billion souls. The love part is a given.

In the short 8 weeks I have been here, I have fallen into some sort of imitation of Indian life – I drink chai and attempt DIY chapatti. I ride in the boot of autorickshaws and expertly sidestep oncoming mopeds as I cross the road, only partly conscious of the blast of (seriously unnecessary) horns. Naturally, this white girl is fooling no one. “Which country, which country?” they want to know. “New Zealand and no, I know nothing about our cricket team.” I’m here to translate my academic learning into to real world experience. That’s what I put on my DIA application form. But really I’m here to learn and reflect. This is what I’m hoping this blogging business is going to portray. Enjoy.

I knew from the outset that India’s (imbalanced) gender relations were going to be the thing I struggled most to get my head around. But I underestimated the frequency by which the patriarchy would jolt me out of my routine papaya-buying, rickshaw-declining, Fatehpura living.

OnchitaS/ Creative Commons License

OnchitaS/ Creative Commons License

I notice it when the guy charged with feeding us at one of the Block Offices takes my bemused “I have no idea what you’re saying, but sure” responses to his incessant chat in Hindi as an invitation to crank out the porn he has stored on his Samsung 1200T. I notice it when a temple sign dictates that no woman on her period should enter ‘as to preserve the sanctity of the temple’. I notice it when I hear directly from village women that a child should speak for a woman at the Caste Panchayat meeting as she is disallowed from speaking for herself. I notice it when I read that Udaipur district’s sex ratio declined by 24 points between 2001 and 2011.

India has 37 million missing women. The reasons for this are varied and complicated, though the neglect of girl-children, female infanticide, sex-selective abortions and female mortality are all partly responsible. Centuries of tradition and religion place women both on pedestals and at the feet of men – their ‘honour’ a virtue so easily toppled. To me it seems that on a societal level women here are yet to be recognised as whole, complicated and multi-sectional human beings; arguably something the rest of the world too struggles to comprehend. I want to explore this inequality further in subsequent blogs, but for now I am interested in the effect this patriarchy has on impressionable young Indian men. Sunny Hundal in his book ‘India Dishonoured’ suggests that by 2020 there will be an extra 28 million men of marriageable age. THIS IS KIND OF TERRIFYING. What will this do to a society which at best undervalues women, at worst downright abuses their human rights? What too, will it do to these young guys, unable to find a bride in a culture which places so much emphasis on marriage?

Steve Evans / Creative Commons License

Steve Evans / Creative Commons License


According to sociologists, young unattached males are more likely than others to congregate in groups and as a result, become more willing to engage in unusual risky behaviour (a phenomenon known as ‘group polarisation’). This is bad news. How will all these extra (young) men come to view unmarried women? As a commodity? An object to be traded; property they’re entitled to? What of the women who resist their advances? In the Times of India today, it was reported that children in India are more exposed to risk factors that make them sexually violent later in life compared to countries including Rwanda, Mexico, Croatia and Chile. The survey, carried out by the International Centre for Research on Women “and two other organisations” (quality journalism as always from the Times), found that 24.5% of the 2000 Indian men surveyed had engaged in sexual violence at some point, most of it directed towards an intimate partner. The percentages for Chile (9.4%), Rwanda (9.1%), Croatia (8.8%) and Mexico (4.3%) are positively aspirational in comparison.

While the developed world begins to recognise the importance of conversations surrounding consent even among primary school children, sex education is not a part of the school curriculum in most parts of India. The combination of misinformation, inexperience and early marriage is a dangerous one. A UNICEF survey found that only 36 per cent of young Indian males and 20 per cent of young Indian females were aware of HIV. Reports of rape continue to rise, official government statistics show incidences of rape increased from 24,923 in 2012 to 33,707 in 2013 (likely underestimates given the stigma of reporting rape). This could be representative of victims’ increased willingness to report rape; unfortunately there hasn’t been a corresponding increase in conviction rates (hovering around 28 per cent). Nor has the language appeared to change, today’s page three article reporting on the rape of a woman by a man she had befriended on Facebook begins “Friendship on Facebook with an unknown man cost a woman her modesty.” This implicit victim blaming isn’t uncommon and it’s not hard to imagine increases of these sorts of violent crime in the face of frustrated, peer-influenced groups of guys.

For India to tackle the imminent social ramifications of a society with so many more men than women, first it must start to recognise women as whole, complicated human beings freed from constraints of honour and modesty. It must too recognise the negative effects this imbalance will have on men in a culture so preoccupied with marriage.



The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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