India seems unable to shake off the tag as “one of the worst places in the world to be a woman” with yet another survey painting a grim picture of life for half the country’s 1.2-billion-strong population.
The survey showed that two in five women had no say in choosing their spouse, one in two was married before the legal age of 18, and 54 per cent said they expected to be beaten by their husbands if they left the house without his permission.
Indians live in two worlds. In one, women fly planes, run Fortune 500 companies, rule Indian states the size of France, work as doctors and scientists and function as autonomous individuals. In the other, they are little more than serfs.
The survey of more than 30,000 married women in villages and towns all across India, carried out by the National Council for Applied Economic Research, made for alarming reading.
Six out of 10 married women cover their heads, eight out of 10 need permission to visit a doctor and, in addition to leaving the house without permission, the other reasons why they might get a beating is if they cook a dish badly (35 per cent), bring an inadequate dowry (36 per cent), or neglect their household duties (46 per cent).
Other surveys have shown similar findings but this one, by having a much larger sample, leaves little doubt that it is grim being the average Indian woman, no matter what her faith, class and regional location.
Some customs, though, seem more widespread in certain areas. Child marriage, for example, is much more common in the poorer regions of Bihar and Rajasthan than in more prosperous states such as Punjab and Kerala.
But not all the findings are grim. Child marriage is less common. In 2005, 60 per cent of women reported getting married before the age of 18, as opposed to 48 per cent in the latest survey.
What wasn’t surprising for me was the large number of women who did not know their husband before getting married. Given that arranged marriages are still the norm here, even among young educated Indians, I don’t see how any other result could be possible.
More disturbing is the male assumption that he can control his wife and her movements once they are married and, if she disobeys, punish her with violence. I would mind less about a woman getting married below the age of 18 as long as her husband treated her as an equal, to be respected.
But the findings, while depressing, are not an exclusively Indian failing. At the time of the Delhi gang rape in 2012, many Indian and western commentators spoke scathingly about the Indian male’s penchant for sexual violence and the rampant misogyny to be found in Indian society.
All of this was true, indubitably true, and Indians were right to flagellate themselves as they did. But then you read the results of a recent EU survey on sexual violence and you find equally disturbing attitudes.
The survey, of 42,000 women across EU countries, showed that about a third of all women have experienced either physical or sexual violence since the age of 15; that means 62 million women. And the countries with the highest levels of violence were Denmark, Finland, an Sweden – all countries we associate with gender equality.
Indian men can at least plead extenuating circumstances by citing ignorance, lack of education and lack of awareness about feminism and gender equality. European men, who have been exposed to these ideas for decades, have no such excuse.
Two wrongs don’t, of course, make a right but these two surveys do demonstrate that no country has a monopoly on misogyny. It is a widespread curse and shows no sign of disappearing, no matter what a country’s GDP, education, or culture