Two days ago, Thomson Reuters Foundation (TRF), an international mass media and information organisation, came out with a survey poll that placed India at the top of the “World’s Most Dangerous Country For Women.” War-torn Afghanistan and Syria ranked second and third respectively, while the United States came tenth.

The poll results are out there and now there two ways to go from here – either we take the nudge and move positively towards making India a holistically safer nation for women or we sit back and nitpick the credibility of the poll itself. In having to choose between the positive and inaction approaches, most commentators and politicians in power have decided to adopt the latter.

Unfounded qualms

It isn’t surprising that the Maneka Gandhi’s Ministry for Women and Child Development (WCD) and the National Commission for Women (NCW) rejected the results. NCW Chairperson Rekha Sharma argued that the sample size was small and could not be representative of the whole country.

On the contrary, though, TRF didn’t hide the facts that the survey was a perception poll and the sample pool comprised of 548 experts on women security and gender. Rather, the media organisation was fully transparent with the poll parameters and the participants.

Here’s an interesting thing about perception polls – they’re based on perceptions and opinion of people. When conducted on a universal population, like opinion and exit polls in elections, the credibility depends on the size of the population for more accurate discernment. However, when these polls are based on expert opinions, there is no ideal population size since most responses are considered to be reasoned decisions made by individuals with field and contextual knowledge.

In the present case, 548 experts came together and responded according to their perceptions on six parameters decided by TRF – including healthcare, discrimination, cultural traditions, sexual and non-sexual violence, and human trafficking.

TRF didn’t hide the facts that the survey was a perception poll and the sample pool comprised of 548 experts on women security and gender.

These experts are not “unknown persons”, as the WCD Ministry claims. In fact, they are aid and development professionals, academics, health workers, policymakers, NGO workers, journalists, and social commentators – the same people who would feature in any expert committee established nationally or under international organizations like the United Nations.

Claims that the representation of the sample experts might be lopsided could be well-thought. However, it misses the fact that topical experts are well within their expertise to opine on the global situation of their topic, as well as in different nations. And in any case, 101 respondents considered themselves to be experts on India.

Arguments that the government departments were not approached for their inputs in this poll are inane at best, considering that this poll was meant to be a civil society based report and that there are obvious biases in governmental statistics. Using governmental responses to rank the administration of the government is a Catch-22.

Even the Universal Periodic Review of the UN Human Rights Council relies on shadow reporting by non-governmental human rights groups to get a more balanced perspective on human rights issues or to compensate for lack of access to the subject zones.

Matter of ‘national pride’

The problem can be very well discerned from NCW Chairperson Sharma’s statement: “Women are very aware in India of issues and there is no way that we could be ranked number 1 in such a survey. The countries that have been ranked after India have women who are not even allowed to speak in public”.

Perception polls didn’t bother us when PM Modi was ranked third amongst the world leaders or when India came seventh in terms of positive impact on global affairs – both primarily based on non-expert perceptions recorded through online responses

The above really translates to ‘women in India are aware of the everyday oppression and subjugation they go through and it’s all good since we don’t speak about it at national forums. We won’t do anything about it anyway but it’s crazy that we are ranked first because there are many other worse-off nations’.

The statement is one that doesn’t resolve to attain a better status quo but one that defends the existing one, that too only in relative terms to other nations.

The poll irks us for all the wrong reasons – not because it throws open a reality we are well aware of yet indifferent to, but because it pricks our national pride. The same survey poll in 2011, which ranked India fourth, never even made it to news cycles. Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi – then in line for the job – himself, alongside his supporters, used the 2011 poll to criticise the then ruling Congress government for pushing India up to the fourth place.

However, this time, the fact that the poll placed us as below war-torn countries, and most importantly, Pakistan (sixth place) caught everyone’s eye – making the poll itself the prime target of criticism.

The social media outrage against this poll’s research methodology is founded on an invisible yet omnipresent sense of national glory, one that has only been growing stronger since 2014. This is a glory we don’t want to achieve through positive action but only preserve through a negative reading of the poll.

Unchanged reality

Whether or not this poll is legitimate, the focus should be on the core problem i.e. women’s safety. If anything, this poll and its focus areas are essential markers of progress to be made in the coming years. The poll shouldn’t come as a shock to anybody after the gruesome Kathua and Unnao cases, watering down of Section 489A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), crimes against women increasing by 83% in 2017 as compared to 2007, and convictions falling to all time low.

Whether or not this poll is legitimate, the focus should be on the core problem i.e. women’s safety.

Striking as the data on direct violence may be, other intangible forms of violence and inequities cannot be ignored. At least 20 million women have left India’s workforce since 2005, leaving women to constitute only 27% of it now. All this warrants an aggressive investigation into the oppressive structures of the Indian society, whether or not India ranks first on any survey. If anything, the survey is only a snapshot of the situation that needs controlling.

By busting the survey and not the problem it partly evidences – we’re all playing pawns to the ruling party’s PR agenda ie. deflect till the point of forgetting.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was quick to respond to Rahul Gandhi’s tweets about this poll by poking holes in the survey. BJP parliamentarian, Poonam Mahajan, argued that even with these concerns, India certainly is much better for women than many other countries:

“no matter what Gandhi thinks of his fellow Indians. Slandering crores of fellow countrymen by calling them most dangerous in the world for women, to further his shoot-and-scoot style of politics, is a new low that the Congress president has stooped to.”

In a classic case of denial, Ms Mahajan spontaneously made a case not about the failures of the government in ensuring a safe environment for India’s women, but about the respect of the fellow countrymen. While this poll should be an eye-opener, opinions like Mahajan’s lead to no introspections and hence, no change.

In any case, our actions as citizens are rife with double standards. Perception polls didn’t bother us when the Gallup International Survey 2018 ranked PM Modi as the third amongst world leaders or when the Ipsos MORI Global Influence Study 2017 ranked India seventh in terms of positive impact on global affairs – both primarily based on non-expert perceptions recorded through online responses without equitable representation across nations.

The fact that the TRF poll bothers the citizens to this extent is itself indicative of how powerful the culture of collective dismissal of problems that plague a woman’s daily existence is. Fair to say that even today, women still have to burn at the edge of a pyre, – except, this time for national glory.

Abhinav Verma is a final year student of Law at University of Delhi. He holds postgraduate diplomas in Conflict Transformation and International Law, and has interned with the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC), United Nations Information Centre (UNIC) for India and Bhutan, and most recently, NITI Aayog, the Indian government’s official policy think tank.

Views expressed are the author’s own.

Featured image by Jordi Bernabeu Farrús:  

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