Women's rights have been in the forefront of international concern over the last few weeks.
Making the biggest headlines were the massive demonstrations in New Delhi and other cities in India provoked by the brutal gang-rape by six men of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student in a moving bus in the Indian capital. The crime, which resulted in the victim’s death, triggered the release of popular anger that had built up for years over the rise in violence against women.
The statistics are horrific. According to government estimates, a woman is raped in India almost every 20 minutes. In New Delhi, dubbed the rape capital of India, the incidence of rapes is up from 572 in 2011 to 661 so far in 2012. Of the 256,329 incidents of violent crime reported for 2011, close to 90 per cent were committed against women.
What accounts for what one writer describes as the “increasingly predatory sexual culture”? For some analysts, the rise in sexual aggression is related to male resentment at the erosion of the traditional subordination of women in India’s patriarchal society by women’s increasing role in the workforce, their increased mobility, and their growing social and economic empowerment.
Also a major factor has been police laxness in dealing with rape reports and increased impunity by rapists owing to the victims’ feeling that the legal processes are stacked against them and their wish to avoid the stigma associated with being raped or abused. India is in this regard much like other societies and is little different from, say, the United States, which analyst Shenali Waduge, citing government estimates, says tops the rape chart.
Yet the current protests may turn out to be a turning point, for while much of the media reporting has focused on spontaneous demands like the death penalty or chemical castration for rapists and sex offenders, the recent developments may well mark the emergence of a massive militant mass movement in India that will focus on confronting head-on the patriarchal norms propping up the social subordination of women that is at the root of much sexual violence.
A fight won by Filipinos
Even as India’s gender equation may be in the process of transformation, the women’s movement registered a historic victory in the Philippines with the passage of the Reproductive Health Bill. The law, which makes family planning an obligatory policy for the current administration and for future ones, was passed on December 17 in the teeth of ferocious opposition from the super-patriarchal Catholic Church.
Key provisions of the new law include the provision of free or cheap contraceptives to poor couples, sex education for students from the sixth grade up, the establishment of maternity-care facilities in state-run hospitals, and reproductive health counselling and treatment for women in all hospitals.
The passage of the RH bill was seen widely as an enormous debacle for the Catholic Church, to which some 80 per cent of the population nominally belong. For 14 years, the Church hierarchy waged battle against the campaign to have the bill enacted into law. How did the RH advocates manage to beat an institution that has been a massive force in Philippine society for nearly 500 years?
Well, first of all, the Church was fighting a rearguard battle whose outcome could not be in doubt in the long run. Survey after survey had shown large majorities of the population favoured family planning.
Yet the passage of the bill could have taken longer had it not been for strategic shift in the discourse of the pro-RH forces. Population management has long enjoyed widespread popular support, with some 90 per cent of respondents in an October 2008 Pulse Asia survey agreeing with the statement that it was important to “have the ability to control fertility or plan a family” for the “welfare of the country”.
However, in the early years of the family planning debate, the Church managed, with some success, to paint a sinister side to population management, depicting it as a foreign plot to contain the Philippines population as well as a scheme to create a market for Western contraceptive manufacturers.
The pro-RH coalition was made up of forces that saw unrestrained population growth as a major cause of poverty and underdevelopment, and women’s groups that focused on the reproductive rights of women.
While the Church and its allies denied that the family size was positively correlated with poverty, RH advocates produced convincing statistics that showed that the larger the family, the lower its income.
They also produced reliable studies that showed that over 22 per cent of Filipino couples wanted to limit their families to escape poverty but were prevented by lack of access to contraceptives and lack of familiarity with family planning, from doing so.
In the end, the Church hierarchy was reduced to becoming, like its counterparts in the climate-change debate, denialists – that is, denying flat-out the results of surveys, medical statistics and demographic calculations.
The events in India and the Philippines are steps forward in the struggle against gender oppression and for women’s rights. Yet that the road ahead promises no easy struggle for women is underlined by recent developments in the African country of Swaziland, where Agence France Presse reports that police “have banned women from wearing miniskirts and midriff-revealing tops, saying they provoke rape”.
The article goes on to quote police spokeswoman Wendy Hleta, who claims that “women wearing revealing clothing were responsible for assaults or rapes committed against them”.
This syndrome of blaming-the-victim is still far too common an attitude among men, whether in the United States, India, Africa, Europe or Latin America.
More broadly, misogynist and patriarchal attitudes are not only resisting stubbornly. In many societies, they are making a comeback.
Witness recent developments in Egypt, formerly one of the Arab world’s most secular societies, where Islamists in power are pushing hard, as in Iran, to re-subordinate women to traditional gender roles.
Women around the world are on the march, but the struggle against sexual oppression and gender rights will remain a difficult one, where significant steps forward will be matched by occasional steps back.
Walden Bello is representative of the party Akbayan in the Philippines House of Representatives.