The 23 year old victim of a brutal gang rape on a bus in India died this morning of massive organ failure. Nicholas Kristof and others are calling for India to re-examine its policies toward women. I expect this event, which led tens of thousands of protesters, from female college students to elderly women, into the streets, to represent a watershed. However, it will take more than increasing police or streamlining the courts to deal with this problem.
The world cannot put enough pressure on India to change. That country has been presenting itself to the international community as an up-and-coming, fast-track-to-modernity nation. Yet its poverty and its treatment of women speak not only of an incomplete transition but of a callous disregard for social justice.
Too often economic analysis compartmentalizes these issues, treating social concerns as something outside its purview. That is how it comes to be that we have a vision of India as the new model for capitalism floating through the world press, while the truth on the ground shows a nation mired in a brutal system of social norms from purdah to caste.
The reproductive realm is, in particular, seen by economics as a separate realm, despite the links made early in its disciplinary history to issues of population. Some of this is the result of the purposeful theoretical exclusion of the home from its lens, as respected thinkers such as Nancy Folbre have made clear. But the case of India demands an even closer look.
Consider the full scope of the Indian system that holds women down. Several local commentators have remarked, from the very moment the crime was reported, that the “raping spree” rocking the country (a 25% increase in five years with a sinister emphasis on gang rape) was a reaction to the way women had emerged in the public domain, both in education and employment. “Female empowerment is totally unsettling to many men. It has shaken up their sense of entitlement and their response is violent and volatile,” as Hindol Sengupta, an Indian social activist observed.
OK, let’s just put this more directly: Indian men are using rape to keep women in their place, especially to try to stuff them back into the economic box that has traditionally been their special prison. An axiom: the gender economy is held in place by threat of violence. In India, the men have become uncomfortable enough that this threat has become action.
As for many other women around the world and through history, Indian females have been constrained from economic activity and, particularly, kept from having access to money. They have not only been held in the home by the norms of purdah, but kept from inheriting wealth from their husbands or families. This made them utterly dependent on men for subsistence, as completely disempowered, vulnerable, and encumbered as a population of slaves.
A family presented with a female infant held an economic liability in their arms. The girl, in the grips of this social system, could never bring earnings on her own. Only another mouth to feed, she would drain her household’s resources until someone could be found to marry her and, thus, get her out from under the roof. In order for that to happen, the parents would have to muster enough money to pay a dowry to the prospective husband’s family, a bribe to take the daughter off their hands. So, in India, as in other developing countries (where such circumstances are common), there is comprehensible pressure to marry the girl off as soon as possible, often immediately after menarche. (Hence the Indian propensity to early marriage, which is purely an economic dodge, not a matter of sexual urges, as tribal leaders have claimed in recent days.) Frequently, investments in the girl as human capital are kept to a bare minimum until she can be married off, which is why girls are less educated, less fed, and less often taken for medical care.
Once the girl went to the family of her in-laws, she often became a house slave, ministering to the husband and his mother as if she were Cinderella. Indian society, by restricting her ability to earn, declares the young woman no good for anything but sex, child-bearing, and housework–the three main categories of unpaid reproductive labor. If the in-laws became disenchanted or spent the dowry, they often would physically abuse the girl. These are the circumstances that lead to the bride-burnings, so often a sensation when reported in the West (and, like the rate rape, on the rise, reaching one every 90 minutes in 2010).
Worst case scenario is the new bride gives birth only to daughters. Female children only continue the sad saga of economic dependency, whereas sons present the promise of an income stream for the entire family. However, it is important to understand that the bride herself needs to produce a son. If she should be widowed, her subsistence support will often stop, as she is not able to inherit anything from her husband and even her own earnings will be turned over to the in-laws on her husband’s death. Thus, her day-to-day survival depends on having either a spouse or a son to buy her meals, clothes, shelter.
India sees its widows as unspeakable burdens, casting them off to live as beggars or prostitutes. More than 40 million Indian widows live like this–that’s 10% of all Indian women.
There is no excuse for the female infanticide that is blithely practiced in much of India. But you can probably now see that there is an explanation for it. The social norms I have sketched out here turn the arrival of a female newborn into an economic disaster, whereas the arrival of a son becomes the promise of a brighter future, even for the mother herself. You can see why a bride, dependent on her in-laws’ approval, often living as a virtual prisoner, and holding out for a son as her only hope, might be complicit in the killing of a daughter.
Sons are India’s retirement package. Instead of social security or pensions, people hold out for male babies. That is why even middle class mothers, once they see the ultrasound, make a decision whether to keep a baby on the basis of its sex.
Because female infanticide has so skewed the child population, demographers predict that the sexual violence that has gripped India in the past few months is only likely to get worse. You can imagine how violent young males will be when, beyond just having their pride wounded by females entering the workplace, they can’t even find a wife or a girlfriend because there are simply too few women in their cohort. An excess of young males in any population is a recipe for hostility. For India, with its poverty and its tolerance for sexual violence, along with its skewed sex ratio, the future could be a nightmare.
For poor families who allow a daughter to live, the burden can become too much. The “excess population” of females, therefore, is all too often sold into slavery. India is home to the biggest slave trade in the world: girls are sold into domestic service, but usually are destined for the sex trade. As with the lukewarm response to sexual violence, the country has done little to address this problem. The female face of human trafficking is a worldwide reality, but India’s special attitude toward women gives this country a particularly offensive status. The slave trade is a huge part of international crime. Along with drugs, guns, and counterfeiting, this underground economy represents an increasing shadow GDP–and a threat to safety and stability everywhere.
Notice that all this trouble comes from a single root: the refusal to allow females to engage in economics beyond the reproductive realm. Only as wives, mothers, servants, and prostitutes can Indian women make their living in the traditional system. Held prisoner by the threat of starvation, burning, beating, murder, or rape, these women are now trying to become independent, self-supporting economic actors. This whole impossible system is what is meant by the frequent turn of phrase about India’s “cultural preference for boys.” It is a euphemism. And the men, threatened by the prospect of independent women, are raping them back into the house. Ironically, this male violence only furthers the precariousness of the whole society.
“Save women. Save India.” This was the legend on a placard in one of the protests last week. It is not an exaggeration. One might add: “Save the world.”