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.

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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.

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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.