Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Lesons from Women's Safety Initiatives in South Asia

There is an interesting article in the January issue of the Harvard Magazine on women's safety in South Asia that got me thinking about broader implications.  The article was written by Rohini Pande, a public policy professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, and is titled "Keeping Women Safe".

We have all seen the shocking headlines about gang rape in India.  These cases are getting international publicity and a lot of attention in India.  Prime Minister Modi mentioned the subject in his Independence Day speech, saying "Today when we hear about these rapes, our heads hang in shame".  Many different efforts are underway to address this crisis.  The article reviews them and comes to some noteworthy conclusions.

One obvious way to deal with criminal behavior is to pass new laws.  This has been done in India, but the efforts have generally not produced a safer environment for women.  The laws increase the penalties for rape convictions, even allowing for the death penalty, but have led to a backlash.  Women are increasingly subject to peer pressure to not press charges that result in extended incarceration or death of men in their village or neighborhood.  In some cases, local laws are passed to counter or reduce the impact of the wider law to levels even below previous legislation.

                            (photo caption:  women police cadets in the Indian state of Gujarat)

Another example of ineffective methods is the institution of curfews for female students and workers.  In addition to restricting women's freedom of movement, an unintended result of this rule was to make it even more dangerous for the few women who must be out after hours.

A key factor in this crisis is that young men outnumber women in the country by 8%, a very large difference.  This is due to family "planning" to increase male progeny.  It is a disturbing situation, and one might have thought that the imbalance would make women more valuable to society.  The net effect is, however, the opposite.  Men marry younger women to secure a bride and the women therefore have less chance of education and advancement, and less power in the house.

The key to reducing the rape problem is solving the inequality problem with economic and social advancement for women.  When women are more educated and bring income into their family and community, they have more respect and bargaining power and social acceptance of violence against them decreases.  Education and jobs also result in women marrying later and having expanded networks of women and colleagues and friends.

Change does not come easy and some areas in South Asia are using temporary quotas to begin changing attitudes.  For example, there is now a 33% quota for women in the police force in the Indian state of Gujarat (see photo).  In 1993, India passed a law requiring villages to include women on their councils.  The author's own research in this area showed an interesting effect.  The legislation was implemented on and off and not uniformly around the country.  This turned out to be beneficial.  The villages felt some leeway and did not fight the law.  The strong result was that even with occasional women on the councils, the villagers became used to the idea and began electing women even when the law was not in effect.

I was impressed with the practical approaches advocated in this research.  The basic advice is to try every possible way to advance the social and economic status of women:  microloans for small women-owned business, quotas for public service jobs, laws aimed at political advancement, financial incentives to increase colleague enrollment, and incentives for women to form social networks.  Then, very importantly, perform research to determine which approaches are most effective.