Reflecting on attitudes towards women in India

Two weeks after a medical student was gang-raped and killed in Delhi, Daniel Hinchliffe, who is volunteering with Seva Mandir in Udaipur, reflected on what he’s seen of attitudes towards women in India. Since he wrote this post, six men have been arrested for a second gang-rape in the Punjab region. Daniel shares his thoughts below.

Why is there such a struggle for equality for women in India? Photo by Daniel Hinchliffe

Why is there such a struggle for equality for women in India? Photo by Daniel Hinchliffe. See more at

Since arriving in India, I’ve wanted to write a blog post on gender issues in the country. But I’ve always found myself confronted with a vast topic, which I feel barely competent to address. Most of what I have to go on is based on what I’ve seen or heard from those much more knowledgeable and experienced than myself, but I hope I can do the topic the justice it deserves.

This morning, to kick off the new year, some of us were called to a meeting in light of the Delhi gang-rape which happened two weeks ago. This story has driven much of the country into uproar since the rape victim, known internationally as “Damini”, died from her injuries on 29 December.

Each woman in the meeting, around 20 in total, shared experiences of sexual harassment or assault. Each of them had stories to tell. At this point I realised just how far this country has to go in fighting widespread prejudice and disrespect against women. To be unable to travel anywhere alone without fear of being raped is ludicrous.  I recognise that the UK is no stranger to sexual assault, but here it seems to be on another level altogether.

The reason for this is hard to define. It must partly come from the fact that boys and girls are kept so separate in their education and upbringing that boys don’t know how to treat women and attitudes towards sex are so conservative. Being male I’ve not witnessed much myself, but here are some examples of what I’ve experienced:

–         A female friend and I were walking along a small road into the city, and a boy no older than 8 appeared and groped her from behind. I immediately felt outraged and sternly told him off.

–         I’ve heard numerous other stories of young Indian men asking white girls: “Can I fuck you?”

–          A volunteer I know at another NGO went to the field a few weeks ago with a male student translator who asked her inappropriate sexual questions. The woman was alone with him in the field on the back of his bike, feeling vulnerable and exposed. She tried to clarify the situation, saying it’s not acceptable to ask questions like that, and he said: “How come? You asked me if I like Bob Marley.” The translator has since been dismissed.

These are awful. But the stories the women at the meeting were coming out with, from what little snippets I understood, were much worse. Being pulled out of rickshaws, assaulted by boys on motorbikes, felt up by police officers and even an assault by married men when they were at school. What’s worse is the limited follow-up. At most they seemed to get a reluctant apology, at worst they themselves were held to blame.

Of course the West is by no means perfect; there are crimes against women and there’s still work to be done before women become truly equal citizens. However I grew up with confident and assertive women around me, something that seems rare over here. It may well be that in Delhi, Mumbai and other cities where women are becoming empowered that the new generation of educated men have different attitudes. But even if the attitudes of people in cities are changing, the treatment of women in rural India seems set to remain unequal for much longer.

When I first started visiting villages in Rajasthan, I was surprised to discover that it is women who do all the hard work. They may also be subject to a husband who drinks and beats them. Rarely having an education, from an early age they toil in the sun-scorched fields and carry heavy firewood and water back on their heads.

Of course this isn’t always true and things are beginning to change, but it’s the way of life for many in this state. I’ve also heard stories of fathers in very poor families prioritising them and their sons eating first at the expense of their infant daughters and even pregnant wives.

And so I find myself wondering: how do you change this? Can you really get a school teacher to tell young boys that they should respect women, when all their life experience has shown them that women are unequal? Who’s to say a school teacher who disagrees with this view would even teach equality to their class of boys?

The self-help groups that Seva Mandir helps set up offer one solution to this problem. They encourage a means of livelihood for women in a village and also provide a support network and a path to self-confidence. Perhaps with time, men will come to respect their wives more when they become the main breadwinner in the home.

As for sexual harassment and assault, the government needs to implement laws that punish sex offenders harshly, and cases need to be followed up effectively. With the protests and uproar caused by this latest national case, I only hope that finally there will be some momentum to bring about actual change on this.

As for the conclusion of our meeting this morning, it was decided that the community around the residence should be consulted, and an attempt should be made to foster a better attitude to women in the area. The only problem with this is that the community apparently won’t be very receptive since the staff living at the residence have parties and the women drink and stay up late. Only then when the parties stop or become more contained can the community be approached. It hardly seems fair. It’s like saying girls are asking for harassment when they wear jeans.

I’ve only touched the surface of the topic in this post and made some sweeping generalisations in parts, but I hope I’ve been able to give a feel for the way things are here. India is progressive, and it is slowly improving its inequality problems. But it seems stuck in a sort of middle-ground for women, between Saudi Arabia and the West.


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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