Published Dec. 27, 2013

Nine Decades of Subjugation for India’s Women

India is the world's largest democracy, home to a broad array of religions and languages and more than 1.2 billion people. But 66 years after winning independence, its women still labor under the yoke of injustice, inequality and abuse. While there have been many strides forward, especially by individual women, much more remains to be done. Related Content >>

‘Better Half of Humanity’
Mahatma Gandhi calls for equal treatment of women, writing in the Young India journal: “Of all the evils for which man has made himself responsible, none is so degrading, so shocking or so brutal as his abuse of the better half of humanity — the female sex.”

He led a movement through nonviolent civil disobedience that culminated in India’s independence from the U.K. in 1947. He opposed child marriage and the dowry system, though both are still practiced.

Photo: Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
Child Marriage Banned
The British Indian government passes the Child Marriage Restraint Act. It made it illegal for men to enter into a marriage with girls under age 18, with steeper penalties for older men. While the numbers have declined, 43 percent of the nation’s women aged between 20 and 24 were married before the age of 18, according to numbers cited by UNICEF. The organization pointed out that child marriages contribute to an environment in which “investing in girls’ education is perceived as a waste of resources.”

Girls Kidnapped for Forced Marriage
Suffer Rising Crime in India >>
Rupsona, whose identity has been obscured in this photo, was kidnapped in 2011 at age 14 and sent across the country to be married to a man she had never met. She was rescued after 14 months. Photo: Bibhudatta Pradhan/Bloomberg
Women’s Suffrage
Women receive their ballot papers to vote in parliamentary elections at a booth in outer New Delhi, January 1952. Photo: Popperfoto/Getty Images
The new constitution, three years after independence, grants women as well as men the right to vote and run for election. That has continued, though parliament has failed to pass a constitutional amendment that would allot one-third of seats in the lower house to women candidates. First proposed in 1996, the bill passed the upper house of parliament in 2010; the lower house has never it put it up for a vote.
Pandit Takes the Mic
Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit becomes the first woman and first Indian president of the United Nations General Assembly. Active in the independence movement, she was imprisoned three times by British authorities. She also was India’s ambassador to the Soviet Union, the U.S. and Mexico.
Photo courtesy of the United Nations
Dowry Banned
India enacts the Dowry Prohibition Act, which makes it illegal for Indians to request, pay or accept a payment as consideration for marriage. Even so, on average an Indian bride is killed every hour over disputes related to the payment of dowries, police say. The number of women murdered over dowries has risen by a third in the last decade. As the country’s wealth has grown, so too have expectations for dowries.
Asha Kulkarni
General secretary of the Anti-Dowry Movement
Photo: Siddharth Philip/Bloomberg
Indian women protest against the traditional act of marital dowry in 1975. Photo: Keystone/Getty Images
Gandhi Elected Prime Minister
Indira Gandhi becomes India’s third elected prime minister, and its first and only female in that role. The daughter of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, she served from 1966 to 1977 and from 1980 until her assassination in 1984. Her son, Rajiv Gandhi, was prime minister until 1989; he was assassinated in 1991.
Jyotsna Chatterji
Director of Joint Women’s Programme
Indira Gandhi reads her oath of office as India’s new prime minister on Jan. 24, 1966, in the Prime Minister’s official residence in New Delhi. Photo: AP
Women’s Empowerment
The Self Employed Women’s Association is founded to empower poor women through work and self-reliance. India’s women have one of the lowest rates of economic participation and opportunity in the world, according to a 2013 study by the World Economic Forum. Women make up less than a quarter of the working population, the study said.
A woman artisan makes lampshades at a bazaar in Hyderabad. Photo: Noah Seelam/AFP/Getty Images
Mother Teresa is Awarded Nobel Peace Prize
Mother Teresa becomes the first Indian citizen to win the Nobel Peace Prize. She said in her acceptance speech that she received it in the name of “all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for.” Thirty years later, the Norwegian Nobel Committee noted that, “Mother Teresa left her teaching post at a Roman Catholic girls’ school in Calcutta in order to devote her life to working among the poorest of the poor in the slums of that city.”
Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee presents Mother Teresa with the Nobel Peace Prize. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Depictions of Women in Media
The Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act is passed by parliament, prohibiting inappropriate female depictions in advertisements and publications. The law prohibits “the depiction in any manner of the figure of a woman; her form or body or any part thereof in such a way as to have the effect of being indecent, or derogatory to, or denigrating women.” Women activists in India charge that those who make and carry out the laws in their country often harbor patriarchal views.
Women stand beside advertisements for jewelry during the festival of Dhanteras in Mumbai, India, on Friday, Nov. 1, 2013. Photo: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg
Sati Outlawed
Villagers look at the funeral pyre where 65-year-old Kuttu Bai burns during her husband's cremation in Madhya Pradesh Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2002. Photo: AP Photo/PTI
After thousands of people watched 18-year-old Roop Kanwar burn herself on the funeral pyre of her husband, a centuries-old Hindu practice called sati, the government enacts the Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act. It reinforced a 19th-century British law making it illegal to aid and practice sati by also making it unlawful for communities to glorify the act. In the last 15 years there have been four incidents of people breaking the sati law, police say, and worship at sati temples still takes place.
Prenatal Gender Testing Banned
India bans prenatal sex determination testing. Despite the law, ultrasound technology has made sex-selective abortions widely available. Even in small towns, doctors carry portable machines from clinic to clinic. By 2011, there had been only 55 convictions for violating the law.
Belly of a pregnant surrogate mother from Mumbai. Photo: Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket via Getty Images
Woman in Space
Kalpana Chawla is the first Indian-born woman to go into space. She flew two missions on the space shuttle, perishing in the second when Columbia exploded over Texas 16 minutes before its scheduled landing on Feb. 1, 2003.
Commander Kevin Kregel, center, wishes everyone a “Happy Thanksgiving” from the space shuttle Columbia in this televised image Thursday, Nov. 27, 1997. The crew, from left to right, are: pilot Steven Lindsey, Japanese astronaut Takao Doi, Leonid Kadenyuk, Winston Scott, and Kalpana Chawla. Photo: AP/NASA
Sonia Gandhi Takes Office
Sonia Gandhi becomes president of the Indian National Congress party. The most powerful politician in the country, she is the widow of Rajiv Gandhi and her son, Rahul, may run for prime minister. She spearheaded the passage of a $20 billion bill to help feed the nation’s poor and has publicly supported the proposed constitutional amendment giving a third of seats in the lower house to women.
Sonia Gandhi listens during a news conference in New Delhi on June 1, 2010. Photo: Pankaj Nangia/Bloomberg
Inheritance Rights
The Hindu Succession Act is amended to grant women equal inheritance rights to ancestral and jointly owned property. A study in two Indian states found that only 12 percent of Indian women surveyed have inherited or believe they will inherit land from their parents. It was published this year by the United Nations.
Indu Agnihotri
Director of the Centre for Women’s Development Studies
Protection Against Domestic Violence
Parliament passes the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act. The law established greater protections for women suffering from beatings or emotional abuse by their husbands. One-third of married Indian women reported experiencing physical abuse, with slapping the most common form, according to a study published by Bharathiar University last year.
A vehicle belonging to the Crime Women Cell, a special police branch for the protection of women. Photo taken in May 2005. Photo: Thierry Falise/LightRocket via Getty Images
‘Adventurous’ Women
TV journalist Soumya Vishwanathan is shot dead in her car driving home from work in Delhi in the early morning hours of Sept. 30. In response, Delhi’s chief minister Sheila Dixit chastised “adventurous“ women. A day later, Dixit said she meant that women working in jobs with odd hours should be escorted by their employers “as safely as they possibly can, not be allowed to go home at 3 in the morning all by themselves.”
Maja Daruwala
Director of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative
Fatal Gang Rape Spurs Protests
Indians mourn the death of the gang-rape victim in New Delhi on Dec. 29, 2012. Photo: AP Photo/ Saurabh Das
A 23-year-old woman is gang raped by six men aboard a moving bus in Delhi. The brutal assault spurred weeks of nationwide protests and triggered an unprecedented debate about India’s endemic problems with sexual violence. She died on Dec. 29. The following month, the defense lawyer for three of the men involved in the attack had this to say: “Until today I have not seen a single incident or example of rape with a respected lady.” Parliament passed a sweeping series of laws targeting sexual violence. Women’s activists say that barriers to justice for women who suffer sexual assault remain high because of social attitudes, disinterested police and slow courts.
Ranjana Kumari
Director of the Centre for Social Research in New Delhi
Protection Against Sexual Harassment at Work
India passed the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act. High-profile complaints have drawn attention to the scale of workplace sexual harrassment in India. The editor of one of the country’s best-known magazines was arrested and charged in November with raping one of his young female employees. It followed allegations by a law student that she was sexually abused by a retired Supreme Court judge when interning with him.
An Indian woman protests the sexual harassment of female bus passengers in Bangalore on October 7, 2013. Photo: Manjunath Kiran/AFP/Getty Images

EDITORIAL: Andrew MacAskill, Tom Lasseter, Ketaki Gokhale, Peter Hirschberg, Anne Swardson

GRAPHIC: Chloe Whiteaker    AUDIO: Sophie Caronello