Violence against women, in the public sphere as well as within the home, has been a major challenge in the country for long, but until recently it had largely been a concern raised by women's rights activists. It is the recent public outrage at the rising levels of violence faced by women that has brought the issue to the forefront of public discourse, forcing the Union government to acknowledge the severity of the problem. The issue has also featured prominently in the election manifestos of major political parties with a number of commitments made to eliminate violence against women.
It is worth examining why despite having a reasonably comprehensive legislative and policy framework, government interventions towards both preventing and responding to violence against women have not been very effective. Several deficiencies in planning and implementation of these programmes have prevented them from achieving the desired impact. Even the Justice Verma Committee constituted to suggest possible amendments in the criminal laws related to sexual violence against women, in its report, indicates that "failure of good governance is the obvious root cause for the current unsafe environment eroding the rule of law and not the want of needed legislation".
A significant part of the 'failure of good governance' in the context of violence against women occurs in the implementation of relevant legislations and policies. In terms of concrete interventions to translate government's intentions to prevent and respond to violence against women into reality, there are only a few programmes instituted by a handful of ministries, most of these being significantly underfunded.
The Union government's efforts towards addressing violence against women have primarily been led by the Ministry of Women and Child Development and Ministry of Home Affairs; some interventions have also been put in place by the ministries of tribal affairs, social justice and empowerment and overseas Indian affairs. The need for appropriate interventions in other critical sectors like health, urban development, transport, education etc. has not been adequately recognised yet. Requisite interventions in these sectors have not been incorporated by the concerned ministries in their programmes yet. It is only now, in response to a call to ministries to submit proposals under the 'Nirbhaya Fund' that Union ministries such as road transport and communications and information technology are initiating measures to curb violence against women.
While new interventions being introduced are necessary, proper implementation of existing programmes is equally important. Most of the existing programmes have failed to achieve the desired impact, among other reasons, owing to deficiencies in planning and budgeting for the same. Many of the schemes in place are underfunded, have low unit costs and the implementation of these hinges upon overburdened and understaffed implementing agencies.It is worth noting that only three of the several schemes by the Ministry of Women and Child Development aimed at curbing violence against women and girl children, meant to cover the entire country (Swadhar Greh, Rajiv Gandhi National Creche Scheme and Integrated Child Protection Scheme), have allocations over Rs100 crore. Moreover, as noted in a report by Department-Related Parliamentary Standing Committee on Human Resource Development presented in April 2013, a number of schemes pertaining to violence against women such as National Women Helpline, One Stop Crisis Centre and Restorative Justice for Victims of Rape are not yet operational owing to procedural and administrative reasons.
The constrained fiscal policy followed in the country over the last one and a half decades has compelled both the Union and state governments to curtail their long-term expenditure commitments in favour of short term (ad-hoc) policies for human resources in a range of sectors for the sake of checking their public expenditure. This has resulted in scarcity of human resources required for effective implementation of programmes and legislations, apart from adversely impacting the institutional capacity of the government in a range of sectors.
The implementation of some critical legislations such as the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, Prohibition of Dowry Act and Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (PWDVA) etc. is constrained by inadequate human resources and weak institutional mechanisms. The responsibility for the implementation of these legislations in most states has been assigned as an additional charge to existing officers who are discharging other duties, leaving little scope for effective implementation of these important legislations. Despite the PWDVA being in force since 2005, less than 10 states have appointed independent Protection Officers so far. Even the scheme by the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development for facilitating implementation of the PWDVA does not seem to have taken off yet. Institutional mechanisms for support services like shelter, medical facilities and counselling required for proper implementation of such legislations are also inadequate, leaving a large gap between the actual needs and what is provided for. Likewise, the Working Group on Women's Agency and Empowerment for the Twelfth Plan had recognised the need to improve the implementation of the Dowry Prohibition Act by appointing sufficient number of dedicated and full-time Dowry Prohibition Officers.
While the strengthening of institutional capacity in this sphere is necessary, it is also important to take into account that a common experience of women and girl children facing violence has been the lack of sensitivity on the part of frontline service providers: police, judiciary, medical personnel and other key stakeholders. Police turning away women in distress, refusing to file FIRs and biased court verdicts, stemming from lack of gender sensitivity, act as serious impediments in ensuring relief and justice to women facing violence. Though some efforts towards gender sensitisation of personnel have been made by the concerned Union ministries and a few states, more concerted efforts need to be made to create an environment conducive for women to seek support from the State.
Violence against women is a complex issue rooted in deeply entrenched patriarchal norms. While a multi-pronged approach, factoring in the complexities of the problem, is required to effectively deal with the issue, the State bears the primary responsibility to eliminate gender-based violence. With a new government at the Centre, we hope the seriousness towards the issue that was reflected in the election manifestos of all leading parties would translate into reality in the coming years.
The authors work on gender issues with the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability