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The Fight for Equality: Safeguarding Women in India

By Trisha Chakroborty

Violence and discrimination against women continue to be major issues in India despite vast improvements. Centuries-old practices like Sati, where widows were forced onto their husband's funeral pyre, and the Dowry System, which burdens brides' families with financial demands, highlight the historical disregard for women's autonomy and well-being. These practices, though outlawed, serve as stark reminders of the brutal realities women have endured.

Here's a look at some of the mistreatments women face, both historically and in contemporary times:

Historical Practices:

●      Sati: Widows were forced to immolate themselves on their husbands' funeral pyre, denying them any agency over their lives.

●      Child Marriage: Girls were married off at a young age, robbing them of childhood and education.

●      Limited Property Rights: Women had little to no control over property or inheritance.

●      Exclusion from Education: Formal education was largely inaccessible to women.

Contemporary Issues:

●      Dowry System: The burden of exorbitant dowry payments on the bride's family, often leading to harassment, violence, and even dowry deaths.

●      Domestic Violence: Widespread physical, emotional, and sexual abuse within the household.

●      Honour Killings: Brutal acts targeting women who transgress social norms.

●      Rape and Sexual Harassment: High incidence of sexual violence in public spaces and workplaces.

●      Female Infanticide and Sex-Selective Abortion: A strong preference for sons leads to the neglect and killing of girl children.

●      Unequal Access to Education: While improving, girls' literacy rates still lag behind boys' in some regions.

●      Discriminatory Social Norms: Restriction of movement, limitations on clothing choices, and lack of control over personal decisions.

The Shadow of Inequality

Gender inequality permeates various aspects of Indian society.  Lower literacy rates for girls, limited access to education and employment opportunities, and societal biases favouring sons all contribute to a situation where women are viewed as a burden. This fuels the aforementioned practices and creates a breeding ground for violence against women.

Case Study on Sati:

The Sati system stands as a chilling example of the historical mistreatment of women in India. It involved a widow sacrificing herself by being burned alive on her deceased husband's funeral pyre. This practice, shrouded in warped tradition and fueled by social pressures, had devastating consequences for countless women.

Origins and Prevalence:

The exact origins of Sati remain unclear, with possible mentions in ancient Greek writings. It likely gained prominence during the medieval era, particularly amongst certain Rajput clans, before spreading more widely. While some texts portray Sati as a voluntary act of wifely devotion, there's strong evidence of social pressure, family manipulation, and even intoxication used to coerce women onto the pyre. Colonial accounts may have exaggerated the prevalence of Sati to further demonize Indian society. Still, there's no denying the horrific reality it represented for many women.

Justifications and Underlying Beliefs:

●      Religious Texts: Misinterpretations of Hindu scriptures were used to glorify Sati as a path to spiritual merit and reunion with the husband in the afterlife.

●      Family Honor: A widow choosing Sati was seen as upholding the family's honour and social standing.

●      Fear of Widowhood: Widows faced a precarious existence, often ostracized and denied property rights. Sati, in a twisted way, offered an "escape" from this harsh reality.

The Fight for Abolition: Raja Ram Mohan Roy, a social reformer from Bengal, emerged as a powerful voice against Sati in the early 19th century. Having witnessed its horrors firsthand, he campaigned tirelessly for its eradication. Roy's efforts, along with growing social disapproval, led to a turning point. The Bengal Sati Regulation (1829) outlawed the practice in British-controlled India.

Echoes in the Present: Although outlawed, isolated incidents of Sati-like deaths have been reported in recent times. This underscores the need for continued vigilance and education to eradicate the underlying social norms that fueled this practice.

Recently, an independent Bengali short film, “Jhijhi: The Whispers”, was released on YouTube and directed by Debrik Chakraborty; it was about the ill-treatment women used to receive back in the day. Revolving around an ambitious and outgoing woman, Payel, who gets to know what really happened to her great-grandmother, Sati, who just wanted to study after her early marriage however, her husband was against it and used to torture her all the time. One day after the sudden death of her husband, she was burned alive next to her husband’s dead body, known as the Sati System. After knowing all this, Payel questions everything around her and how society does not understand women; their wishes are crushed, their happiness is taken away, and in the end, the culprit is always the woman for being difficult to understand. This film really makes you think that this is “something we don’t talk about”.

Although outlawed, isolated incidents of Sati-like deaths have been reported in recent times. This underscores the need for continued vigilance and education to eradicate the underlying social norms that fueled this practice.

India has a substantial legal framework to safeguard women's well-being. Here's a breakdown of some key laws:

Combating Violence:

●      The Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961: This Act outlaws the giving and taking of dowry, a practice that can lead to violence against women.

●      The Indian Penal Code (IPC):

○      Section 304B (dowry death): Specifically addresses deaths related to dowry demands and harassment.

○      Section 498A (husband or relative of husband subjecting a woman to cruelty): Criminalizes cruelty inflicted on a woman by her husband or in-laws.


●      Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005: Provides comprehensive protection to women from physical, emotional, sexual, verbal, and economic abuse within the household. It empowers women to seek legal separation, residence orders, and monetary compensation.

●      Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013: Introduced stricter punishments for crimes like rape, acid attacks, and stalking.

Workplace Protections:

●      The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013: Mandates all organizations to create committees to investigate complaints of sexual harassment and ensure a safe working environment for women.


Other Important Laws:

●      The Maternity Benefit Act, 1961: Guarantees paid leave and other benefits to pregnant women and new mothers.

●      The Equal Remuneration Act, 1975: Prohibits gender-based discrimination in wages for equal work.

The Road Ahead

The police and judicial systems require resources for efficient complaint investigation and justice delivery while educating women about their rights and addressing societal biases is crucial for long-term change.

The Sati system serves as a stark reminder of the brutality women have faced throughout history. It underscores the importance of challenging harmful traditions, promoting women's autonomy, and ensuring their safety and well-being. The fight for gender equality in India continues, and the lessons learned from Sati must guide the path towards a more just and equitable society. The fight for women's rights in India is an ongoing process. While the abolition of Sati is a significant victory, constant vigilance and social reform are crucial to ensure such barbaric practices never return.

While these laws are a positive step, stricter enforcement and social awareness campaigns are crucial for lasting change. Educating girls, empowering women economically, and dismantling social biases is essential to building a society where women are treated with dignity and respect. Change requires a collective effort. We can all be advocates for gender equality by speaking out against harmful practices and promoting women's rights.









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