My column that touched on the issue of domestic violence a few weeks ago produced a flood of responses. Some people appreciated what I had written. Others thought I had missed the point. There were many emails from people with suspicious, almost fictitious, sounding names who insisted that I had got it all wrong. They suggested that I ought to be writing and worrying about battered husbands, about the misuse of section 498A in the Criminal Procedure Code that gives women some protection from domestic violence within the first few years of their marriage, and from "sowry" which they termed as reverse dowry.
I could have ignored the mails if not for the sheer volume. I also noticed that the bombardment strategy did work in that some newspapers actually took the issue seriously enough to talk to the individuals leading the campaign against 498A and pleading the case of harassed husbands. It is perhaps no coincidence that around the time of this email blitzkrieg, there was the strange case of a woman who sued a leading software company because she claimed that it gave men a "dating allowance". She alleged that as a result of this, her husband had gone astray! The story disappeared from the news pages after the woman withdrew the complaint without explaining why she did this. If this was not a genuine complaint, then who put her up to it?
Why is that some issues seem to hit a raw nerve while others pass by without creating too much of a stir? We can write about Dalit women being brutally raped and murdered, or about the struggles of tribal women and the urban poor. But touch on a subject that enters the bedrooms of the middle class and there is an instant, usually negative, reaction. This sanctum sanctorum should not be encroached upon. Those expressing solidarity with battered husbands also invoked the sanctity of the Indian family, of Indian culture, and how such laws, that give women rights, are actually undermining Indian culture. Yet why is the violence that women of all classes face not considered an assault on Indian culture? Are we to believe that Indian culture, regardless of how it is defined, endorses such violence and prefers that women have no rights as human beings?
"I am a poor father of a girl child. I belong to middle class. When the child was born I did not see her face for three days. Not that I did not love my child. I was worried about the problems she will face in life. As she grew I constantly worry about her. Society values are totally tilted against the girl child. If any girl is cheated by a male, the shame is on the girl. Till the time she gets married and settles in life I have to worry about her. If facilities for sex determination were available that time she was in her mother's womb I would have done it and gone for abortion. Such is the fear of a father in this society. Kindly highlight the problems faced by the girl child and her poor father."
While one cannot endorse this father's sentiments, at least he is honest. He has touched on the perennial question: how do we shift attitudes? Can laws and governmental policies work when patriarchy is so entrenched?
The good news as we end 2006 is that some laws and policies do seem to be working. In the State with the worse 0-6 years sex ratio, Haryana, recent data suggests that some progress is being made. In the 2001 census, Haryana's 0-6 sex ratio was a shocking 819. Data for 2006 indicates that it has risen to 854, still well below the national average but an improvement on five years ago. In all but three districts, the sex ratio has improved. For instance, in Kurukshetra, it has gone up from 771 in 2001 to 809 in 2006. Similarly in Ambala, it has increased from 782 to 807. But in Gurgaon, it has slipped from 858 to 822, in Mahendragarh from 818 to only 791 and in Rewari, from 811 to 795. Gurgaon is now virtually an extension of New Delhi. So that is certainly not encouraging news.
We have still to learn exactly how this happened, and also whether the statistics are accurate. But from newspaper reports, it would appear that some of the focused programmes that the Haryana government launched after the uproar over the low sex ratio are making a difference. The combination of positive incentives that help parents to accept the girl child and punitive action against those who resort to sex selective abortion is working. At least, one hopes that this is what is happening and that the data is accurate and has not been cooked up to meet "targets" set by the State government.
If this trend holds out by the time the next census is held, then we will have reason to cheer. Till then we can only wait, watch and cross our fingers. And also try and assuage the genuine fears of people like the father quoted above.