If the current government needed one index of how slowly economic reform has progressed in India it need look no further than its doorstep at the bottom of Raisina Hill where a protest, mostly by young men and women, against a brutal gang rape in New Delhi has descended into a pitched battle with the police. For many, the protests are overdone, the argument being that similar crimes occur elsewhere in the country and are rarely highlighted thus. But the intensity of middle-class anger in this instance is instructive; it focuses on repeated crimes against urban professional, working women, emerging from the social purdah that society has long imposed. In a sense, therefore, it represents a voice for their oppressed, silent sisters everywhere in India.
But the demonstrations are also indicative of the distance India needs to travel to truly claim a place at the high table of the world’s leading countries. The country’s great and shameful contradiction lies in the fact that it is now the world’s 10th largest economy but among the top performers in oppressing its women. According to a Reuters poll, India is considered the fourth most dangerous country in the world for women. The countries that precede India? Afghanistan, Congo and Pakistan, all three of which can fairly be described as failing states. In June this year – more than a decade into the 21st century – a poll of global experts described India as the worst place for a woman among the G20 countries, on account of female infanticide, child marriage and dowry deaths. The 12 million women who have gone “missing” on account of female infanticide and gender-selective abortion over the last three decades tell the story of ingrained societal misogyny.
More stringent laws – and India’s archaic rape laws urgently need upgrading, starting with the definition of the crime – and a progressive judicial and political leadership can play a role in altering attitudes, but only incrementally. As history of the US and Europe shows, women’s rights were earned from greater participation in economic activity. The US remained the torchbearer of such progress if only because major wars from its founding in 1776, through 1812, the Civil War and the two World Wars kept successive generations of men in the battlefield and compelled women to play larger roles in the economy and public life. A better example, perhaps, lies in Southeast Asia, where the status of women, though by no means optimal, is light years ahead of South Asia on the back of the rapid reforms of the Tiger economies.
That is the message for India. Expanding economic activity in conditions of open competition requires people and talent. That need alone forces businesses to jettison innate biases they may hold on grounds of gender, caste or religion. There is no doubt that India’s women, who account for roughly half the population, have been major gainers from the opportunities presented by liberalisation since the 1990s. The emergence of many more women in the workplace and in positions of professional leadership has indubitably created a dynamic momentum for social change in the status of women in India. Most importantly, these women, though still relatively small in number, are articulate, confident and in a position to demand their place in society as equals with a right to safety and dignity, as they are doing with increasing frequency. The 23-year-old victim has demonstrated just such courage in voicing her desire to live. That’s the voice India’s elected representatives need to recall every time they oppose economic reform for narrow political gains.