India will never develop until it protects and nurtures its women

Jun 19, 2014 | Blogs

The gender situation in India is in a state of crisis.

Last week, we heard reports of two teenage girls gang-raped and then hanged by their attackers in a rural village in Maharashtra. Three days later, a 19 year old was found hanging from a tree in Uttar Pradesh. “Boys will be boys, they make mistakes” said Mulayam Singh Yadav, leader of the ruling party in Uttar Pradesh. The attack has provoked a global petition by Avaaz, calling for the newly sworn-in Prime Minister Modi to address women’s protection against sexual violence as a state of urgency. They have also drafted the Womanifesto. In one week the petition has received 1.6 million signatures.

It was only this time last year that we all heard about the horrific Delhi bus gang-rape, which led to the death sentence of three of five convicted. As a result of mass public protest and media scrutiny, India has also toughened anti-rape laws as well as criminalized offenses such as stalking and voyeurism. Yet the number of sexual offences in India is still not declining. The Washington post reports that one woman is raped every 20 minutes there. Working in rural India, I witnessed a countless number of cases where rape, trafficking and honour killings were mocked, ignored and diluted. Law without enforcement is a dead-end.

The problem is much more systemic. It is a combination of social and economic infrastructure as well as deeply embedded cultural beliefs. Treating sex as taboo means that men still objectify women as sexual instruments. The lack of cultural interaction between genders means that the stigmatized roles of men and women are reinforced by one another. The socio-economic infrastructure of India is set up to hold men in a higher status. Women are confined strictly to the private sphere and men in public. So long as this continues, men will continue to portray visible economic value to society and women’s contributions will remain invisible. By default, women are automatically undervalued and are locked into a male dominant power structure. How can one enforce the rule of law if the enforcers are all men, sharing equally patriarchal attitudes?

A woman’s social value is also inherently tied up in her economic value. The two victims of the Maharashtra rape were on the way to openly defecate at dawn when they were attacked. This is normal practice in India – with 1 in 2 people choosing open defecation as opposed to a latrine. Arguably if there was a nearby toilet, the girls would not have been vulnerable to predators. If women had more say in the household, they would be able to fight for better welfare rights such as access to a latrine or better community lighting. Therefore, if women become a more visible part of the economy, or we placed greater value on the invisible economy, this would help break down sexual, economic and political violence against women. Women would serve less as instruments to a moving economy and more as equal, respected, valued members of society.

The issue of sexual violence against women will remain immune to fragmented short term solutions. We therefore need women placed at each level of the societal framework. We need women as educators, lawyers, police, business leaders, ministers, mothers, lobbyists, social workers. Of course, we also need men to support this multi-level form of empowerment. It is at this intersection that I believe business can play a huge role in steering change. As key stakeholders of society, businesses with the right gender ethics, can promote diversity, inclusion, and empowerment.

So what does the role of business look like?

Through inclusive business solutions, good governance, education, and advocacy, business can help to promote the value and realised worth of both men and women and form a powerful case for why we need both. In doing so, it can help change attitudes and mind-sets- more specifically, the objectification and devaluation of women. The age of sustainable and responsible business urges companies to become active members of society. Working for the development and sustainable prosperity of India necessitates the correct social structures in place. How can markets operate to sustainable and pareto efficient standards, if only half of the market is being served and only half the talent is mobilised? Leading companies such as Unilever and Coca-Cola have realised this, and are working with governments and NGOs to address issues such as access to sanitation and better distribution models in order to promote both social and business benefit. Innovative business models such as toilet facilities that also create fertiliser is just one example of this.

Whilst very powerful, business as advocates for change is only part of an overarching collective effort. Systemic change demands the deep-rooted issue of gender inequality to be addressed from all angles. It greatly concerns me that India is cast as an ‘emerging economy’ when women are hanging from trees. Development should take everyone with it, not just let the middle class fly. As the media continue to shine a global spotlight on gender issues, it is with urgency that each actor steps into their role for greater gender justice. To all the stakeholders of India, please wake up.