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Running in reverse

As I write this, news has just come in of the tragic death of Savita Parveen Halappanavar, an Indian woman in her early thirties, who miscarried but was refused abortion because she was in Ireland, a Catholic country that does not allow abortion. Halappanar's life could have been saved but doctors attending on her did not dare to go against the tenets of religion (even though one of them is reported to have said he was neither Catholic nor Irish). Nor did they want to break the law - a 1992 court ruling that abortion should be permitted if there is a 'real and substantive risk' to the mother's life, which is still to be legislated. So, shamefully, and tragically, medical doctors who are bound by oath to attend to the sick and ailing took the support of religion and the law and let Savita die.

Savita Halappanavar is not the only one to face tragic consequences for, well, just being a woman. She had not even stepped 'out of line'. The case of Malala Yusuf Khan, a 14-year-old girl in Pakistan who survived an assassination attempt at the hands of the Taliban, is by now well known the world over. Her crime? Attempting to give herself, and other young girls, an education. So, clearly, if women are not entitled to an abortion even if their lives are in danger, they are not entitled to education either.

Savita and Malala - for each of these women there are thousands of others who daily face terrible physical and mental violence, torture, indifference and more. This is an old story, we all know it, we've heard it again and again. Perhaps it's time we started asking ourselves why this continues to happen - indeed why it is happening more and more in this 'new', 'shining' and 'modern' India.

For there's little doubt that it is - that violence against women is increasing by the day and the hour. There was a time when we asked ourselves whether the numbers were actually going up, or whether it was simply that, with the spread of the media, we were only hearing more about such cases. But we can no longer fool ourselves with this somewhat dubious logic. Rape, acid attacks, so-called 'honour' killings - these are some of the things we get to hear about, there's so much else we've not even begun to know, let alone take account of.

In the past few months we've heard politicians repeatedly make derogatory statements about women and get away with it. Women's groups protest, but no one else really bothers. Parliament gets into heated battle regularly over the smallest thing;groups of people protest daily at this or that claiming that their 'sentiments are hurt'. Women's sentiments are hurt every minute of the day by the insult, abuse, violence that is heaped on them. Why does no one bother about this or take it into account? Can it be true that our society is really indifferent towards women?

But look beyond this - it's not only indifference women have to face, it's often active resentment and anger that results in violence. Why is this? One of the truisms we have often heard is that violence against the poor and marginalised - among whom we have to count women - always increases when societies are in transition, when economies are 'emerging', when major economic and social changes are taking place. Look at Brazil, we're told, or look at Mexico. But is that an excuse? Just because terrible things are happening elsewhere does not make it all right for them to happen at home.

If economic change, or globalisation, signals one kind of turmoil, another is that of the increase in war and conflict. We have barely even begun to apprehend what that does to the lives of women - we now know that the violence of war and conflict leads to increasing levels of violence within the home, that women become the primary targets of this. But that women are pulled into armies and militias, that often they are given away to militancy by families who want to protect their young men and so hand over the women instead, trading them and their bodies for 'peace' - these are things we don't talk about.

Another explanation that is offered is that when jobs are scarce and women enter the competition for them, they are bound to face discrimination and even violence, for they are taking away a part of something that's already scarce, and they are pushing deserving men out of the race. Or that the entry of women - large numbers of them, and many of them poor at that - into village level politics is changing power equations at the grassroots level, and that there is bound to be some backlash.

All of these may have some truth in them;it is true that when societies begin to change radically, new tensions are set up which transform gender and class relationships and throw them into upheaval. But none of these is adequate. And surely societies, and the State, need to understand such changes and work towards dealing with them. It is this willingness to do so that is so sorely lacking in our country. This is why, while the media reports case after case of rape and assault, there is so little outrage about them. This is why khap panchayats can have the temerity to say the sorts of things they do, and chief ministers can publicly support them. This is why any woman who steps out of line runs the danger of violence and often death.

It's not enough to say we have so many women in positions of power. Nor to say we worship our women. It's time we began to value our women, to recognise their contribution to society. Remember the lines of that old song: 'how many deaths will it take to be known that too many people have died. ' Replace 'people' with 'women' and we'll find that the answer is no longer blowing in the wind, it's in the blood on our hands.

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