Posted by Samiha Umbralkar and Yashi Jain
What does the ‘New Girl’ or the ‘New Woman’ of our ‘New India’ look like? – The answer to this question is intricate and often contradictory. While our women and girls are willing to step into a more empowered world, circumstances, often, do not favor her choices. She wants to break all the barriers and become a significant part of the ‘Menstream’ world. The increased turnout of women voters in the 2019 General elections and the increased participation in the decision-making process indicate a woman’s desire to change.
However, while we have seen many positive trends, these statistics reflect only a woman’s inclination to change while the household, men, and society continue to be regressive towards them. For example, DHS data reports that 37 percent of married women in India have experienced physical or sexual violence by a spouse while 40 percent have experienced physical, sexual, or emotional violence by a spouse. According to Dasra’s lost in lockdown report, 24.5 % of organisations working with adolescent girls witnessed an increase in violence against them during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Violence against women and girls is not just devastating for them but for society at large. Any form of violence is detrimental to the creation of a sustainable society – Being cognizant of this fact, the world observes November 25th as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. The day also marks the launch of 16 days of activism that concludes on Human Rights Day – December 10, 2020. Along with various other detrimental consequences of gender-based violence, one of the most immediate and worrying is the violation of sexual and reproductive health and rights of women.
SRHR and GBV
A study by Asian-Pacific Resource & Research Centre for Women (ARROW) on Gender-based violence and SRHR say that “Health outcomes and gender-based violence (GBV) are inequitable gender norms that shape expectations regarding individual behaviors of men and women, as well as the interactions between and among them. These norms curtail women’s autonomy, assert men’s decision-making authority and control over women, and tend to condone or justify the use of violence. At the same time, gender norms and expectations related to femininity undermine women’s and girl’s decision-making power and increase their vulnerability to negative sexual and reproductive health (SRH) outcomes and to violence.”
Healthcare for adolescent girls and women is extremely crucial for their empowerment. The National Family Health Survey 4 (NFHS-4) indicates that nearly 1 in every 10 women in rural areas in the age group 15-19 has begun childbearing, a statistic further compounded by the rate of early marriage across the country. 10to19’s baseline study in Jharkhand tells us that 56% of adolescent girls (10-21 yrs) had given birth before reaching the age of 20 years.
Further, 43% of married girls had an unmet need for contraception, and only 45% of married girls had enough knowledge of contraception to know that condoms can only be used once. The data suggests that even though a huge number of girls are becoming pregnant as teenagers, very few actually have correct knowledge levels on safe sexual practices. It thus becomes imperative for young girls and women to have a broad understanding of their Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) and a more comprehensive sexual education.
As we have seen, gender-based violence against women and girls is pervasive and has negative consequences for sexual and reproductive health and rights for women and girls. There are links between physical violence and lower instances of adopting contraceptives and increased likelihood of unwanted/early pregnancies.
Hence, tackling gender-based violence is key towards protecting SRHR of women and girls. In the same vein, increased awareness among women and girls about their sexual and reproductive rights can result in a dip in gender-based violence against them. So, what are some ways in which we can ensure increased awareness and action resulting in a two-fold solution towards gender equality in our society? Here are some approaches to combat Gender-Based Violence:
- Prevention through gender-equitable norms and attitudes
- Awareness through youth advocacy
- Leveraging Peer Education Models to reach the last mile
- Collaborate and Act
Prevention through gender-equitable norms and attitudes
The reasons for such violence and abolition of rights are social, cultural, and political. Women and girls are often vulnerable to such casualties because of the social norms and beliefs that reinforce the subordinate status of women and girls. The wide-spread socio-economic dependency of women in our country on their husbands, the lack of agency with respect to their bodies, the backlash faced when standing up for their rights are key reasons why women are unable to stand up for themselves.
As a society, we need to mobilise and collectively come together to address these deeply entrenched patriarchal norms. We need to include not just girls, but men, parents, teachers, frontline workers, and key decision-makers in the conversation to deeply transform the norms that underpin these practices. More often than not the cause of violence is extremely complex and thus it becomes even more imperative for men to participate in these conversations and have action-oriented discussions about sexual and reproductive health rights.
We need more interventions that push people to think towards building a society where all our women and girls thrive with dignity and equity. The only way we can do so, is by being a part of the conversation ourselves, not only in our immediate surroundings but also more deeply- by truly understanding the nuances of the problem, keeping our decision-makers accountable, standing up for more gender-equitable policies. These interventions and actions at both the community and individual level can be the starting and the most important entry point towards cutting the cycle of violence and empowering our girls.
Awareness through youth advocacy
The importance of starting early with interventions providing the necessary knowledge to shape attitudes and enable change cannot be emphasized enough. A UNICEF report says, “India has the largest adolescent population in the world, 253 million, and every fifth person is between 10 to 19 years. However, both adolescent girls and boys lack access to information on issues affecting their lives and have limited spaces to develop competencies crucial for active participation.”
As almost a necessity, we must tap into our young population and equip them with the relevant information, guidance, and knowledge with respect to their sexual and reproductive rights to enable them to stand up for themselves and not fall prey to the norms and practices that have been in place for years. We need to ensure policies, interventions and measures are in place so that no adolescent is left behind when it comes to gaining the required skills and knowledge. Whether it means, increasing youth’s digital literacy during the times we live in, or whether it means keeping them at the center of decision making, if we want to solve for GBV and SRHR in the coming years we must focus on our future generation.
Leveraging Peer Education Models to reach the last mile
To ensure the youth is at the center of our solutions, peer education can be a revolutionary and empowering model. A model where young people reach out to each other and act as role models to discuss sensitive issues like SRH more easily than adults. It can work as an accessible, approachable, and efficient format to create a safe space where young people can discuss and promote healthy behavior, reinforce social norms that support safer behaviors, and overall serve as a health education resource both inside and outside the classroom.
While, in India, we have a long way to go in terms of achieving the desired outcome, this can be promising if we continuously re-evaluate and re-focus our energies to see where peer education can be beneficial and play a role in public health care systems, especially in bringing about changes in the SRH knowledge, attitudes and behaviors of adolescents and young people. Even for gender-based violence victims, sharing with peers is simpler than having to deal with the society that continuously judges. This leads to not only better outcomes for physical health but also mental health.
Collaborate and Act
Attitude shifts by civil society, youth advocacy, interventions by NGOs, peer education models, and policy changes by the government, none of it will work if we do not come together, unite and pledge towards the same goal of ending gender-based violence in our society and thereby increasing access to sexual and reproductive health services and rights for women and girls. We need systemic interventions for multi-sectoral linkages between all sectors for us to be able to achieve the UN goal of eliminating all kinds of violence against women and girls.
These solution-oriented approaches call for a systemic change and demand the elimination of gender-based violence by integrating sexual and reproductive rights in health programs. Research-based evidence is necessary to create a multi-sectoral, holistic response that responds to the needs of people. Sharing information, working in tandem with people, partners and communities are critical to driving change. By keeping a human rights perspective, justice and dignity for all becomes the mantra in providing accessible, available, acceptable, and high-quality services to promote women’s SRHR, including the right to safety.
At the heart of both gender-based violence against women and girls and violation of their sexual and reproductive rights, is the need to control women and girls to throttle their agency and right over their own body. In the end, what matters is how we as a society are able to come together to hand back their agency and ensure women make decisions for their own body, about their own sexual and reproductive rights, about when they want to get married and to whom, about how many children they want to have and when. Unless women don’t make these decisions for themselves, we will not be able to contest gender-based violence and build a ‘New India’ for our ‘New woman’.
Featured Image Source: Feminism In India