Six years after the Nirbhaya gangrape, which shook the entire nation, a Thomson Reuters Foundation survey dated 26 March 2018 revealed that not much had changed for women in India. If anything, matters had only worsened.
The survey, titled ‘The World's Most Dangerous Countries for Women’, has put India right at the top, ahead of even war-torn Syria and Afghanistan.
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The survey, which in reality is a ‘perception poll’, was based on the opinions of around 550 experts on women’s issues, and was a repeat of the 2011 poll that ranked Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan, India and Somalia as the most dangerous countries for women, in that order.
The results of the survey sent Indians reeling in shock, shame and denial with even the Ministry of Women and Child Development expressing disbelief. The methodology was questioned, as was the reliability. In a statement, the ministry said the poll was a clear effort to "malign the nation and draw attention away from real improvements seen in recent years".
And while some concurred with the ministry's view, several other stakeholders viewed the survey as a 'much-needed wake-up call'.
How Fair Was the Methodology?
The TRF, in its report, mentions that it contacted 548 experts who focus on women's issues, some of whom were "aid and development professionals, academics, health workers, policymakers, non-government organisation workers, journalists and social commentators". The respondents were asked to rank the 193 UN countries on six parameters – healthcare, discrimination, cultural traditions, sexual violence, non-sexual violence and human trafficking.
India also ranked No. 1 (the worst) under cultural traditions, sexual violence and human trafficking parameters.
The results, particularly for the above three parameters, raises questions on the ethnicity and awareness of the respondents who were contacted for the survey.
In an email exchange with The Quint, TRF clarified that of the 548 respondents, 101 considered themselves to be experts on matters related to India, of whom 53 resided in the country.
But are these numbers sufficient to deduce that India is the 'worst country' for women? Nishita Jha, a journalist, disagrees.
I am not convinced with the methodology. For instance, there are NGOs that work on Indian women’s rights, but are located in London or US. I am not sure how far an NGO like that will be able to give you a grassroots picture of what is going on in a village in UP.
Demanding more 'transparency' in the methodology, Jha said:
The transparency in the methodology is not to discredit the survey, but to merely understand how they have arrived at their conclusion.
However, well-known feminist and activist Kamla Bhasin refuted the questions that were being raised on the methodology, urging people to instead focus on the results.
There is no point in questioning the methodology because the minute you do that, you are refusing to recognise the issues that are present.
Survey is Qualitative, NOT Quantitative
The TRF, owing to a clause in its methodology, refused to divulge details of the respondents who took part in the survey. With respect to the reliability of the survey, the TRF said that the poll was not based on official data, and merely attempted to complement it.
Perception polls are not meant to replace official data but to complement this data with a snapshot of a situation at a given time. Experts who know the situation on the ground can offer valuable insight that such data doesn’t always show.Thomson Reuters Foundation
Namita Bhandare, who has several survey-based analyses on women's issues to her credit, backed the survey, and said that it was not a 'quantitative analysis'. She said:
I think the Thomson Reuters Foundation makes it very clear that the survey is based on the limited perception of 500 or 550 domain experts and is, by no yardstick, a comprehensive, quantitative survey.
However, not many are satisfied with TRF's claim of the survey merely being a 'snapshot' of the situation.
Journalist Aarti Tikoo opined that sans data, just expert perception failed to portray the true picture of an issue as large as women's safety. Speaking to The Quint, she said:
Expert perception doesn’t count for much because there has to be some real data and full spectrum of information. Without data, we cannot have a measure of safety and crimes against women in any of the countries.
Echoing Tikoo's sentiments, Jha said that an "intelligent blend of both perception and data" would enable us to get the "real picture".
Scale of Comparison
"Apples to oranges, really" – that is how Tikoo explained the comparison in the survey, which she felt was a "statistical blunder". As mentioned earlier, the respondents in the survey were required to compare the situation in 193 countries, ranging from war-torn areas to politically unstable countries.
In fact, Bhandare, who was incidentally approached by TRF for the survey, turned down their request as she had "no experience of living in other countries and so was unable to make any sort of comparison".
But that did not stop her from decrying the social media uproar over the survey's perceived comparison between India and countries like Syria, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia.
This is not a competition of my country’s record being worse than your country’s. So, I find some of the reactions to the survey on social media really off the mark. Rather than getting entangled or side-tracked by some superficial patriotic chest-beating, surely we need to ask, ‘what are we doing about it’.
Meanwhile, senior advocate Karuna Nundy observed that one could not agree or disagree with the comparison in the survey unless one has a "real sense" of the other countries that featured on the list. Does this then imply a discrepancy between ‘perception’ and on-ground data?
You can tell the difference between perception and data only if you look at the data that is available for countries like Syria and Afghanistan. The absolute data in India is pretty grim if you look at the sort of power women have, their cultural practices and also domestic violence.
Tikoo, meanwhile, thrashed the comparison claiming that the countries featured in the list were vastly different from each other on several parameters.
"You cannot draw a comparison between India, which is a democracy, and Saudi Arabia, where women cannot even register a complaint against abusers without the permission of their male guardians. You can, at the most, make a comparison between India and another democracy," she said.
Definition of Safety
The objective of the survey, according to TRF, was to highlight the most dangerous countries for women and the risks faced by them in the said countries on the basis of six parameters.
However, the survey, Jha said, failed to empirically define the "notion of safety" it aimed to measure.
Are you in danger because you, as a woman, cannot walk down a street at 12 am, or are you in danger if you, as a woman, cannot walk down a street in your country? Or are you in danger if you cannot access a safe abortion because of your age? How exactly are we defining the notion of safety? It is a very narrow way of looking at safety.