Posted by: Adrianne Walters | January 7, 2013

The right to health, sexual violence and social change in India

This evening, as I sat shivering in the 5 degree weather in an auto-rickshaw in the congested Delhi traffic, I watched a man dressed in nothing but a pair of light pants go from heated car to heated car asking for money or food. Yesterday, I witnessed a man fly through the air after his pushbike was hit by a car. Life has a different meaning here.

I have now been working with the UNSR for 1 month, in the overflowing little office housing the determined staff of the Lawyers Collective. The Delhi Office of the Lawyers Collective, established in 1981, is home to some 15 workers, dedicated to ensuring access to medicines in India and protecting the rights of marginalised people, including those with HIV/AIDS, sex workers and victims of domestic violence.

Mr Anand Grover manages much of the work of the Lawyers Collective. In 2008, he was appointed Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health by the UN Human Rights Council. With phenomenal energy he manages to balance his duties as Special Rapporteur with overseeing the work of the Lawyers Collective and advocating in court on behalf of disadvantaged individuals and groups. To give you an idea of the workload, recently, after conducting a regional consultation in Malaysia about the right to health and migrant workers, Mr Grover returned to Delhi to complete a long-running case against a large pharmaceutical company, Novartis, in the Supreme Court, the outcome of which has the potential to significantly affected access to medicines, not only in India, but in many developing countries that rely on the cheaper generic versions of medicines produced in India.

In his capacity as UNSR, Mr Grover and his very talented assistants work on a range of health-related issues, completing up to three country missions and three thematic reports each year. I have thus far worked on a range of issues, including health system responses to sexual assault victims, reproductive rights for women, the impact of discrimination based on health status and gender identity on access to healthcare and difficulties in accessing healthcare for migrant workers. I have enjoyed the opportunity to conduct thorough research on these issues, as well as the space to analyse and think about the impact of laws and policies, or the lack thereof, on health, in preparation for completing a thesis later this year.

An issue of significant interest to me, and one that can negate the realisation of the right to health by women is that of gender-based violence. Recognised as a form of discrimination against women and a violation of women’s human rights (see for example CEDAW General Recommendation 19), violence against women is pervasive in most societies and severely impacts on the ability of women to enjoy many rights and freedoms on the basis of equality with men. This has been devastatingly highlighted with the recent case of a young woman gang raped and murdered in South Delhi, near to where I live. Whilst sexual assault in India is prevalent (it is estimated that a rape is reported by a woman every 20 minutes in India), it often flies under the radar, or goes unreported for various reasons. Many women are victims of sexual violence perpetrated by those closest to them –their husband, father, cousin, uncle, brother, neighbour. This is violence that typically happens away from prying eyes, within the home. Both forms of violence are abhorrent. Women must have the right to feel as safe in their home and in public as their male counterparts do. Sadly this is not the case. Even at 6:30pm as I walk home from work in the busy but dark streets, I cannot help but be on my guard, prone to overreaction when a shadow catches my eye, angry that the primary reason I feel like this is because I am a female. I am also aware however that I have been privileged to have always felt safe upon arriving home throughout my life. This cannot be said for many women however, particularly in India, where dowry-related assaults and murders still occur, wife-beating is stated to be acceptable by members of the judiciary, dismissive attitudes are the norm when women report domestic violence to police and rape in marriage is not considered a crime.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand that most men are as horrified by sexual violence as I am, however the reality is that the consequences are largely borne by women. After the gang rape of the woman in Delhi many, including women, have expressed a belief that men must better protect the women in their lives. However, this undermines equality and perpetuates, rather than challenges, a patriarchal system, in which men control the behaviour of women, often without being conscious of it or with benign intentions.

Whilst politicians call for the death penalty and chemical castration (both of which are incongruent with the human rights of offenders, as well as being incredibly crude responses to such a complex issue), societal structures and values based on socially and culturally engineered gender stereotypes about the sexuality and inferiority of women, continue to pervade everyday life. Such stereotypes, which are used by some women as well as men, are harmful and render women vulnerable to sexual violence both in the home and in public. For example, to distinguish rape in marriage from rape outside of marriage, simply serves to perpetuate notion of ownership and entitlement over a women that has traditionally attached to marriage in many cultures around the world, including Australia. It also drives wrongful gender stereotypes based on ideas of ‘sexual purity’ of women by only condemning sexual assaults that are seen to tarnish the morality of women.

Reforms such as the recently established ‘fast-track courts’ in India, in which sexual assault cases will be prioritised and heard with minimum possible delay, are important in respect of reducing the suffering of victims who have already been subjected to trauma. In discussing the matter with my colleagues, the need for long-term systemic and cultural change to prevent sexual violence happening in the first place is a commonly expressed view. This is a massive challenge, not just in India, but in many countries and communities around the world. On that note, it was inspiring to watch a Q and A-type discussion show on Indian television last night, in which Mr Grover appeared as a panellist and supported many of the varied opinions and ideas for change expressed by women on the panel and in the audience. Change cannot be cultivated by women alone. Men have an essential role to play in changing attitudes towards women. However, women must be respected as equals and leading participants in any reform process.


  1. […] an edited version of a blog post that first appeared on the Castan Centre Global Interns Blog Site. Read the full version here. You can also read Arianne’s profile […]

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