UNITED NATIONS, Jan 19 (IPS) – India, the world's most populous democracy, has come under fire from a United Nations body for its failure to protect low caste women and those belonging to the country's religious minorities from discrimination.
At a meeting held here this week, a General Assembly committee responsible for monitoring discriminatory practices against women worldwide charged that the South Asian nation was falling short of its obligations under a prominent equal rights treaty.
India has ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), but continues to claim reservations on articles dealing with the issues of sex role stereotyping and those concerning marriage and family life.
"The convention is for every woman in the country, not just the upper class or upper caste," said committee member Glenda Simms, noting that low-caste women in the Hindu system and other minority groups were suffering from "deeply rooted structural discrimination."
The committee urged India to join the ranks of other democracies by ratifying the convention's optional protocol, which lifts barriers to justice for the victims of sexual violence, and to intervene on behalf of its most marginalised female population.
"It is difficult to understand how the Indian government can claim democratic rights for all, yet see women killed because they cannot pay dowry and young girls given away in marriage," noted another member of the committee.
The 23-member committee also took the Indian government to task for its response to the sectarian riots in the state of Gujarat, where extensive violence against Muslim men and women by Hindu mobs took place in 2002.
The attacks were ostensibly in retaliation for the burning to death on Feb. 27, 2002 of 58 Hindu pilgrims on a train, mostly women and children, by a Muslim mob.
Decrying a continued lack of clarity surrounding the riots, the committee noted that despite its "repeated requests" for exact information about the number of victims, the Indian government had failed to respond until this week.
Experts said figures supplied by non-governmental organisations and other sources indicated "a much high number of women killed, abused, or assaulted than what the government had provided."
Official estimates have asserted that 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus died in the violence, with 223 missing and 2,548 injured.
But independent groups say about 2,000 people were killed in Gujarat, and some 380 women were raped and sexually abused. The committee noted that in its response, the government failed to specifically address the issue of "brutalisation of women," as its data were not disaggregated by sex.
Hanna Beate Schopp-Shilling, a committee member from Germany, said she was disappointed with the Indian government's response to questions on gender-related details in a recent report on the Muslim community in India.
"As a state party to the women's convention, India has an opportunity to appear before the committee every four years," she noted, "However, it has been very slow in reporting."
Noting that 70 percent of women live in rural areas, several members expressed their concerns at the displacement of tribal communities as a result of industrialisation and other development projects, such as construction of dams.
In her remarks on various forms of discrimination against women in India, Simms said she feared that children sold into prostitution, including many Dalit (low caste) children, would be victims and conduits of HIV/AIDS.
"One cannot speak about children without speaking about their mothers," she added, referring to millions of displaced minority and Dalit women, who are often forced to place their children in wealthier households as domestic labour, where they are sometimes sexually exploited.
In response to the committee's criticism and concerns, Deepa Jain Singh, secretary of India's Ministry of Women, defended her government's position by saying that women in her country were "guaranteed the right to equality" and "equal protection before the law."
Referring to the Gujarat riots, she described the incidents as "an aberration that should never happen again," and said that India had "learned lessons from those unfortunate events."
Singh said India's Supreme Court had acted at the urging of the National Human Rights Commission, adding that a series of orders had been passed between 2003 and 2004 and that over 2,000 closed cases were reviewed.
In an attempt justify the Indian government's reservations about ratifying the Convention's optional protocol, Singh pointed out that, "It is indeed optional." Though she did not indicate a timeframe, she added that the government would "like to see through it" and that "it is only a matter of time."
While conceding that certain groups of women do suffer from "multiple forms of discrimination based on caste, religion and disability," the Indian delegation said the government was determined to pursue changes in existing laws to address discrimination against women.