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Violence against women: Beyond the rhetoric

Violence against women is as much an economic policy issue as a social one. Macroeconmic policy, governance must set the standards for women’s safety.

(Representational)
Gender budgeting that integrates gender sensitivity in public budgets should be a helpful policy tool in addressing the present concern. (Representational)

Beyond online activism on #RapeinIndia remarks, it is high time safety and security of women in India receives serious bi-partisan priority. It is unfortunate to watch the issue getting “politicised” in the Parliament’s winter session. Parliamentary debates, unfortunately, deviated the focus from increasing sexual violence against women in our country, especially against the backdrop of recent incidents in Telangana, Unnao, and Kathua.

Why are women and girls in our country, whether in rural or urban areas, constantly exposed to sexual violence? It is true that the failure to uphold the right to life, and to provide them safe and dignified spaces is a failure of public policy. But, how we can prevent the high frequency occurrence of such heinous crimes?

Way back this time—in December 2012—the brutal gang rape of a young medical student in a public transport in the national capital led to nation-wide protests against the government’s failure. The government, then, was under pressure to perform, and instead of wasting time on rhetoric and defenses, it constituted a committee under Justice Verma to recommend meaningful policy insights. In its preface, the Verma committee report rightly acknowledges that “it is unfortunate that such a horrific gang rape (and the subsequent death of the victim) was required to trigger the response needed for the preservation of the rule of law—the bedrock of a republic democracy.” Due to the urgency of the matter and the peaceful pressure from civil society, the government insisted that this committee produce a report before the commencement of the next session of the Parliament—a short period of 30 days—to announce the much-needed legislative action. However, the constitutional promise of “gender justice” is still far for Indian women. Making women’s safety and security a top priority for the highest policy-making body is still a distant dream.

The Constitution of India ensures fundamental freedoms to women. Article 15(3) states that the State can make special provisions for women and children while Article 14 enables fundamental freedom and equality; Article 23 prohibits human trafficking; article 24 protects children from hazardous employment; and Article 51 A (e) enshrines it as the duty of every citizen to renounce practices derogatory to the dignity of women. Given these constitutional rights and duties, crime against women is a heinous violation.

Having said that, I am not arguing that a State’s role is confined to ex-post action after the event has happened. I do believe that the State has a proactive role in preventing such crimes, too. A Constitution is meaningful only when it is interpreted for a larger cause, and that largely depends on how a country is governed.

Every time I feel helpless and anguished about sexual violence against women, I return to the “Bill of Rights” included in the Justice Verma committee report—just to reassure myself that we do have a top mission, it is only waiting for public policy champions to translate it into action. This document is written in a broader context than just analysing the legal codes to frame policies for criminal justice.

We always think sexual violence against women is a social policy issue whereas it is as much, if not more, an economic policy issue. Remember, we have a set of public policy tools available to react to this heinous crime. Those policy tools are not confined to “punishing the culprits”. Nor are extra-judicial killings the solution. We can prevent this heinous crimes if there is institutional and individual “virtuosity”, both from legal and fiscal fiat. If we can begin to frame public policies based on the proposed “Bill of Rights”, a big war would be won. It is “political will” that matters most.

The Bill of Rights is a proposed charter that would set out the rights guaranteed to women under the Constitution of India against the backdrop of India’s commitment to international conventions. These rights are articulated as the right to life, security, and bodily integrity; democratic and civil rights; the right to equality and non-discrimination; the right to secured spaces; the right to special protections (for the elderly and disabled); and the right to special protection for women in distress. The charter is informed by Amartya Sen’s framework of “capabilities approach”. Here, “capability” distinguishes between the “ability of a person to do things” and the “enabling environment” and “instruments” and “permissions” to pursue what she would like to do. And, the latter depends on the safety and security systems that exist in her country.

One is unsure whether the sexual violence against women will get attention again when the Parliament budget session begins in 2020. To me, “rule of law” is a public good; “gender justice” is a public good. I hope the finance minister will come up with a policy road-map, backed by adequate budgetary allocations, to deal with this issue. The present FM is suited to lead the country in this area not because of her “gender”, but because of her knowledge both in this field, given her past assignment as member of the National Commission for Women, and in macro fiscal policy.

A silent policy revolution—gender budgeting—that integrates gender sensitivity in public budgets has happened in India. This should be a helpful policy tool in addressing the present concern. Mere allocation of funds is not enough, “fiscal marksmanship” to translate the budgetary allocations into real spending and outcome is equally significant. The current state of the “Nirbhaya funds” proves exactly this.

In a federal set up, public policies to address gender concerns can also be formulated through intergovernmental fiscal transfer mechanisms. The 15th Finance Commission has submitted its interim report to the President of India, and will be tabled in the Parliament in the budget session. Given that gender discrimination starts even before birth, the Commission could incorporate the criterion of sex ratio in the age group of 0-6 years in deciding how tax is shared between states—states with poor child sex ratio may get less money than those with comparatively better sex ratio. And money speaks! This criterion can also solve the issues related to the 2011 population, which penalises states with healthy demographic transition.

If not through divisible tax transfers, the Finance Commission could also design “specific purpose transfers” to states, to address gender concerns. Having said that, fiscal responsibility and budget management (FRBM) dictates the debt and deficit levels of our country, and can shrink the fiscal space for gender-aware human development.

It is equally important to flag here “governance deficit” is as detrimental as fiscal deficit to ensure gender development. I am hopeful about gender justice when macroeconomic policy and governance set the standard to safeguard the dignity of women.

(The author is Professor, NIPFP. Views are personal)

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