Overview of women’s rights in India

The Constitution of India contains many fundamental rights and an even longer list of rights have been interpreted by the Supreme Court. However despite procedures for the protection of those rights, the practice of law enforcement and the judiciary has been less than exemplary. The rights of minorities, the poor and in particular women are often trampled or ignored by the police and the district courts. Women, especially in rural areas, are often subjected to molestation and abuse at the hands of family and members of the community. The police are either absent or worse complicit in this abuse and the government and judiciary are either not involved or not interested.

The role of women in Indian society is changing in an effort to keep pace with global trends. In certain regards India has taken a lead in women’s rights. The Constitution provided for equal protection and non-discrimination based on gender from its inception. However traditional attitudes pervade the nation, especially in poorer or more rural areas. Although not sanctioned by law, child marriages are common as are dowry deaths, sexual exploitation and domestic violence. Illiteracy and oppressive traditions ensure that whole generations of women are unaware of the extent of their rights under the law. Women who are victimized are often thrown out of their homes and shunned by their families if they reveal the abuse. The victims are treated as shameful; the wrong that was done to them is attributed to their own faults.

There is some progress. Higher courts, government commissions and NGOs are working to educate and empower women and victims throughout India. The Supreme Court has laid down directives intended to provide assistance to victims of rape. Courts are empowered to provide interim relief in many cases. Public interest litigation ensures that journalists and activists can sue on behalf of the less fortunate.

The case of Sulekha Mahipal is both desperately tragic and powerfully optimistic. Sulekha has, with the help of counselor’s and education, taken her power back and begun to fight her own battle against the men who victimized her. She has become a powerful force, not only for her own case but for the women of her community, state and nation. Although her case has yet to be concluded, great progress has been made to bring powerful men to justice.


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