Injustice undermines incredible growth

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 February, 2011, 12:00am

Last Monday, a teenage girl in India had her nose, arm and ear chopped off. Her crime: resisting rape. Seventeen-year-old Sarika had gone out with a friend when three men pounced on her. When she sought to raise the alarm, the men tied her up, mutilated her and left, after threatening her not to inform anybody about the incident.

It happened in Fatehpur, on the sacred Ganges River in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state. The fertile Gangetic plain is considered the cradle of Hinduism. The combination of heinous violence with religious places is not unusual - this case is noteworthy for both its brutality and ubiquity.

India is a patriarchal society. The good Indian girl needs a man at each stage in her life - in the form of father, husband and son. She does not question her father's authority, participates in an arranged marriage, and when she reaches her in-laws' house with sufficient dowry to ensure that she is not burned, proceeds to beget male progeny. If she conceives a girl child, there is always recourse to female feticide or infanticide.

If she is harassed, the good Indian girl is taught to ignore, look the other way, do anything but avoid calling further attention to herself. Those who do not listen deserve a lesson - as did Sarika. That she did not allow herself to be gang-raped incensed the men enough to mutilate her. Cutting off a woman's nose is a common treatment meted out to difficult women. It has its roots in the Ramayana where Rama's brother slashed the nose of a seductress.

Uttar Pradesh is India's second-largest state economy. It has been growing at 6.29 per cent since 2004, an economic feat that is credited to Mayawati, its chief minister. Mayawati, like Sarika, is a Dalit woman. But, that is where the similarities end. Mayawati belongs to that other subset of women in the subcontinent - dynastic successors, benefiting from either their fathers or mentors.

Benazir Bhutto was the first woman prime minister of an Islamic state, Indira Gandhi was the longest-serving prime minister of India, and Bangladesh has been ruled by two women, one the daughter of its founding father, the other the widow of an assassinated president. This provides a skewed picture of female leadership in the region. The truth is that their gender is incidental.

Mayawati has used public money to commission statues of herself, her mentor and elephants, her party's symbol. She has done little to check the high crime rate in Uttar Pradesh, one of India's most lawless states.

India ranks 112th out of 134 countries covered by the Global Gender Gap Index. It is second to last in South Asia, ahead only of Pakistan. The Indian economy has been growing at an average of 8 per cent for several years, yet its ranking has remained largely unchanged since 2006.

In India's much-touted growth story, its women are sadly missing.

Stringent deterrents and effectual legislation are needed to ensure girls like Sarika get prompt justice. No nation can prosper if half its human capital, its women, are ignored or, worse, discriminated against.

Manreet Sodhi Someshwar is a Hong Kong-based writer and author of two novels including The Long Walk Home