Editorial: Just fight
High literacy does not automatically lead to gender justice. This is what Kerala found to its shock with the recent rise in cases of violence against women such as suicide and domestic abuse following dowry demands, rape and harassment. With the highest literacy rate in India — 96.2 per cent — Kerala also scores excellently on social and human development indices. It is telling that the assessments do not reflect the status and condition of women, whose literacy is over 95 per cent and who, unlike in other states, outnumber the men. Inherited biases are obviously so deep-rooted that even a society known for progressive movements has not succeeded in uprooting exploitative marriage systems and oppressive marital attitudes. Three alleged suicides within one week, apparently because of dowry, have galvanized the Left Democratic Front government headed by Pinarayi Vijayan into declaring a programme to ensure gender equality and justice. This includes the setting up of fast-track courts exclusively for crimes against women and the strengthening of conflict resolution centres. Ward-level awareness would be activated by local governments when there is a case of violence. The government has already appointed a nodal officer for dowry-related cases; reportedly she received around 100 calls on her first day in office.
Dowry appears to be the main cause of domestic violence. Given Kerala’s developed status, this is amazing. Kerala lacks dowry prohibition officers mandated by the dowry prohibition law; the government should immediately plug this gap. But not everything can be corrected by the administration. The growth of the middle class in size and social power, partly because of foreign remittances, has had an effect on values. Dowry is part of the display of wealth that weddings have come to mean now, and this accompanies restrictions on women’s independence after marriage. Work participation rates for women have dropped; they must acquire the confidence to take a firm stand against dowry and against subordination at home. The government can support this empowerment. In this context, the government’s decision to have school texts audited to remove disparaging words or ideas about women and make schools into spaces where children can learn gender awareness, equality and justice through teaching content and methods is a promising step. It would have been better if all states expended similar attention and energy on gender-based violence.