NEW DELHI - A mission to India by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on violence against women has concluded that sexual violence and harassment is widespread in the country.
After a 10-day visit to several Indian states, Rashida Manjoo said sexual violence targeting India women is perpetuated in public spaces, in the family and in the workplace.
“There is a generalized sense of insecurity in public spaces, amenities, transport facilities in particular," she said. "And women are often victims of different forms of sexual harassment and assault.”
Her visit to India came four months after the fatal gang rape of a 23-year-old student on a moving bus put a spotlight on the lack of safety and security for women, and on the social attitudes towards them.
That incident prompted the government to tighten laws against sexual violence that mandate stricter punishments -- including, in some cases, the death penalty for rape.
Manjoo stressed that sexual violence is just one of the many problems Indian women face. They are also victims of domestic violence, dowry related deaths, crimes in the name of honor and several other forms of violence.
The U.N. envoy also expressed concern about the declining female sex ratio in India, widely blamed on discrimination against girl children. She said the state’s failure to prevent violence against women has made it a reality of their lives. Manjoo says laws exist, but women are often unable to register their complaints. She also says the problem cuts across economic classes and blames it on deeply entrenched norms of patriarchy and cultural practices.
With reference to the new law against sexual violence, Manjoo says India lost an opportunity to establish a broader law that would ensure equality and non discrimination of women.
“It was a golden moment for India to examine whether the legislative policy measures are sufficient to address deep systemic structural aspects, and that is what I regret, that it was a lost opportunity," Manjoo said. "India has an amazing constitution, equality and nondiscrimination, special measures, ecetera. The challenge is how do you translate constitutional guarantees to make sure that they can be enforceable.”
So far, even the new law does not seem to have been a deterrent - the number of rapes reported has increased, including those of girls as young as five. The law also fails to address important issues such as marital rape, which did not fall under its purview, she said.
Manjoo is also calling on India to tackle the problem of violence against women in conflict areas. A law called the Armed Forces Special Powers Act is widely blamed for human rights violations that include rape. She visited the northeastern state of Manipur to listen to the first-hand testimony of victims, and is reported to have wept after speaking with the mother of a 24-year-old girl who was allegedly raped and killed by soldiers.
The U.N. official says top government ministers and lawmakers in New Delhi did not respond to her requests to meet but she says she met with other lower-level officials and with and civil society groups working to end violence against women.