Is India really the most dangerous country in the world for women?

A new report by the Thomas Reuters Foundation has caused a mild media kerfuffle by stating that India takes top ranking in a list of nations considered most dangerous towards women. The fact that the United States sits at number ten has also caused surprise.

ancient antique architecture art
Photo by Fancycrave.com on Pexels.com

But is India really the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman? On one level, the finding may not be that surprising, given the upsetting and graphic reports of sexual violence against women and girls in India that have emerged in recent years. These have created a lot of debate about the status of women in the world’s largest democracy, and have coincided with the rise of the Me Too movement both globally and in India.

There are significant methodological problems with the Reuters research though. Not least is the fact that the research is simply a poll of some 548 out of a sample of over 700 ‘experts’ on issues relating to women, who work in a range of settings, including non-governmental organisations, academia, health, policy, the media and ‘social commentators’. Neither the individuals nor their affiliations are identified. This is understandable, but it does create doubt as to their authority to comment on the issues in question.

A further concern relates to the method of enquiry. Respondents were asked to name the most dangerous nations from the 193 UN member states in relation to six issues:

  1. Healthcare
  2. Discrimination
  3. Cultural traditions
  4. Sexual violence
  5. Non-sexual violence
  6. Human trafficking

Using a single question with sub-categories is a crude instrument that may receive a different answer depending on the day or the mood of the person being asked (or dare I say what they have just watched on the news). The question also ignores the fact that danger is not necessarily reducible to a series of categories. A cultural practice that endangers women in childbirth for instance could arguably fall into any or all of the first five categories in the list.

In fact, the whole concept of cultural tradition suggests a slant towards those nations with clearly defined ‘cultural traditions’ i.e. the developing world. It is not clear which category domestic violence would fall into – is it a cultural tradition? If so, where does that leave nations that may not be regarded as having culturally ingrained traditions of violence towards women, but which nonetheless have high rates of domestic violence?

There are other sources we can go to. The Small Arms Survey provides data on violent deaths around the world. This includes data from 36 countries on violent deaths in armed conflict, and from 221 countries on non-conflict related violent deaths. Despite ongoing falls in murder rates across the world, deaths resulting from war and conflict are increasing and now represent nearly a fifth of all violent deaths.

action aim armed army
Photo by imagesthai.com on Pexels.com

According to the Small Arms Survey, of those who died violently between 2010 and 2015, 16 per cent were female, which is an average of 64,000 women and girls who die violently each year. That still leaves 84 per cent who were male, but it is worth remembering that most combatants in most wars, whether military or gang style, are male.

The highest rates of violent death for females per head of population are in Central and South America, and the Caribbean, with the highest rates in El Salvador, Honduras and Venezuela. Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan have all seen increases in rates of female deaths in recent years.

Looking purely at numbers though, some of the larger countries have the highest number of deaths, with India at the top of the list, with 9,200 female deaths per year, followed by Brazil (4,700), the United States (2,700), and South Africa (2,400).

In higher income countries including many in Western Europe, whilst less people die overall, women account for a higher proportion of those deaths, meaning that proportionately less men die each year in more peaceable countries, but that the death rate for women is still relatively high.

The are also differences in the kinds of violence that women experience. A survey published by the World Health Association in 2013 provides data on intimate partner violence and non-partner sexual violence against women, both globally and regionally. The survey found that overall, 35% of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence, and that just over a third of the women who are murdered each year are killed by an intimate partner. Regionally, the survey found that Africa, the Eastern Mediterranean and South East Asia (including India) had the highest rates of intimate partner violence, whilst Africa and the Americas had the highest rates of non-partner sexual violence.

So is India the most dangerous country on earth for women? There are sadly many contenders for this title. In terms of pure bloody violence, Latin America seems to have much worse problems than India, but this perhaps garners less press attention at the moment, and yet no country from the Americas (except for America) even make the top ten of the Reuters report. Likewise violence against women in Africa receives relatively little attention, and is complicated by the sheer size and diversity of the region.

India is a vast nation rich in culture and history. Most of us rarely see beyond the evocative imagery to the suffering and poverty that exists there, as in many of the countries high on the list. In addition to the high number of deaths in India, there are other terrible things going on in the country that need addressing. The research then is timely, highlighting the presence of high levels of risk in a country that until relatively recently was not commonly regarded as that dangerous to women in the grand scheme of things. This stimulates debate, and outrage, both of which can help foster change. As for whether or not the United States deserves to be tenth in the list, that is a different kettle of fish, and one which will need to be dealt with in a separate post.

The Serious Violence Strategy: upstream or downstream on knives?

The Government published its Serious Violence Strategy in April of this year. I contributed in a small way to this document, so was interested in what the strategy would have to say about knife crime…as it happens…quite a bit, but it is quite tangled up in other issues and not always easy to isolate.

Upstream or downstream?

This is not unusual. A big dilemma for governments worried about violence is whether or not they should focus on a specific problem (downstream), or the wider issues that might help create the problem (upstream). Knife crime provides a good example of this, being a specific and measurable behaviour that individuals do, but one that is linked in complicated ways to other issues like youth violence, gangs, male violence and poverty.

New Labour was the first government to really look at knife crime as a separate issue. The Criminal Justice Act 1988 was the first legislation to address knife carrying since 1959. It was relatively mild, but tougher laws followed,[1] which signaled a determination to tackle the problem head on.

Laws were followed by initiatives. Operation Blunt and Blunt 2 started as Metropolitan Police Service initiatives that included proactive stop and search and the use of metal detectors in schools, both of which have proved controversial. The Tackling Knives Action Programme (TKAP) came on the back of the perceived success of Blunt, but acknowledged the complexity of knife crime and its roots in wider problems. It sought to combine enforcement with prevention and diversion activities and rehabilitation for young people who had been convicted of knife crime.

The Conservative government initially followed Labour’s lead on knife crime, issuing laws and amendments that increased the minimum prison term for those who commit murder using a knife from 15 to 25 years,[2] created a new offence of ‘aggravated’ knife possession, and compulsory custody for over-sixteens who used a knife to threaten others.[3]

As with Labour though, the Conservatives also started to look at wider issues. In 2011 the Home Office announced plans to tackle youth violence, stating that ‘Knife, gun and gang crime is wholly unacceptable and reducing it is a key priority for the government’ (Home Office, 2011: 16). The ‘Kinsella Review’ recommended anti-knife crime presentations for school children; better data sharing between police and schools and more interventions with young people to stop them getting involved in knife crime. The government committed £18 million towards community based preventative initiatives in line with these recommendations.

In the same year however, what have been called ‘the worst civil disturbances for a generation’ occurred. [4] Young people rioted in London, Manchester and around the UK. This led to a shift in government priorities and the Ending Gang and Youth Violence Programme was published soon after. This set out ambitious targets for reducing youth violence but made limited reference to knife crime (HM Government, 2011 and 2015). The Ending Gang Violence and Exploitation programme in 2016 focused on a different upstream issue: ‘County Lines’, that is the use and movement of vulnerable young people around the country by criminal gangs to sell drugs.

The new strategy: different or same old?

This brings us back full circle to looking at wider issues instead of knife crime as a specific problem. The Serious Violence Strategy found, as I did, that there are important links between knife crime, street robbery and drug markets. What it seems to neglect though is the relationship between violent victimisation and the initial decision to carry a knife.

The new strategy makes clear that government efforts are ‘not solely focused on law enforcement…but depends on partnerships across a number of sectors… [and] needs the support of communities thinking about what they can themselves do to help prevent violent crime happening in the first place…’

It is claimed that this represents a ‘step change’ in the way the government thinks and responds to serious violence, and establishes ‘a new balance between prevention and law enforcement’. I would question whether this really represents such a dramatic change from what went before: a social media campaign for instance was tried in TKAP.

That said, the document is well written and in my view, surprisingly mature, informed and thoughtful for a Conservative government. It seems to bridge the gap between tackling specific issues and acknowledging the wider sources of a problem. It also promises significant investment in both efforts to tackle knife crime and efforts to tackle wider issues. Whether or not it can effectively tackle both upstream and downstream issues related to knife crime remains to be seen.

 

Footnotes

[1] Including the Offensive Weapons Act 1996 and the Knives Act 1997 both of which increased by some way the punishments for carrying a knife.

[2] The Criminal Justice Act 2003 Order 2010

[3] The Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012

[4] Lewis, P., Newburn, T., Taylor, M., Mcgillivray, C., Greenhill, A., Frayman, H. and Proctor, R. (2011) Reading the riots: investigating England’s summer of disorder, London: The London School of Economics and Political Science. p 36

Welcome to my blog.

Thanks for joining me!
I am a social researcher working at the intersection of policy and practice, with an emphasis, though not exclusively, on criminal justice policy. I (relatively) recently completed a PhD in Criminal Justice Studies at the University of Leeds, for which I studied the issue of knife crime. My main focus in this blog is the broad variety of policies and initiatives; local, national and international, that are aimed at tackling the complex matter of violence in its many forms. I will document and reflect on these policies in the context of my own research. If there is a theme it is that policies should reflect as many people’s lived experience as possible, and especially those a policy will impact on the most.