On 26 June, a new poll conducted by Thomson Reuters Foundation (TRF) listed India as the most dangerous country in the world for women. Earlier this year, the Press Freedom Index ranked India at the 138th position below countries like Afghanistan, UAE and Sierra Leone, to name a few.

Both these surveys present a grim state of affairs. While there is no doubt that India is nowhere close to where it wants to be when it comes to freedom of the press and safety for women, the results came as a surprise – more so because India is ranked behind Syria where women have faced horrific sexual violence as part of the ongoing civil war.

It is pertinent to note that the same survey, in 2011, had ranked India fourth. This essentially means that in seven years, we went on a path of regression. Evidently, the criminal law reform after the 2012 Delhi gangrape case that saw an expansion of the definition for the offence of rape and the introduction of new offences like voyeurism and stalking weren’t able to make a dent in the campaign for women’s safety.

While there is no doubt that India is nowhere close to where it wants to be when it comes to freedom of the press and safety for women, the results came as a surprise

Instead, we jumped up three places in seven years, topping the list. It certainly seems odd, as the general trend around the world has been that with economic growth and development there is a positive correlative effect on women empowerment.

There is also little doubt that India has grown in the past seven years since the last survey and continues to be one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Thus, invariably the ranking of India should have improved instead of going worse.

So what makes India worse than war-torn countries like Syria in terms of women’s safety?

Perception is the short answer. Even if India is not the most dangerous country for women in the world, it is certainly perceived to be so by the 548 experts that TRF handpicked. The experts chosen came from diverse professions and occupations such as NGO worker, journalists, health workers, development professionals, academics and policymakers.

The reasoning for such diverse selection is sound as they are on the receiving end of the grievances of women of their respective countries and hence, in an apt position to judge the status of women.

The experts were asked to rank countries based on parameters such as access to healthcare, discrimination in terms of access to economic resources, customary practices, violence (sexual and non-sexual), and human trafficking.

This methodology gives rise to several problems.

The first relates to cross-discipline awareness, or an individual expert in a one field like healthcare ranking countries on another field/parameter, such as the backwardness of traditional practices. While there is no doubt that the pool of experts is comprised of remarkable individuals with immense cross-disciplinary knowledge, it is still inconceivable that a healthcare expert would be able to unmistakably rank countries on their sociological backwardness.

It is inconceivable that a healthcare expert would be able to unmistakably rank countries on their sociological backwardness

Second, there is a huge probability that the perception of the other country is based on external inputs like media reports and general public perception. This is due to the fact the experts living in other countries generally have limited means of organic data collection for forming their own perceptions. Further, they are more likely to be unaware of government schemes and policies, which require meticulous examination before ranking any country in terms of access to healthcare to women and similar parameters.

Consider the fact that there has been a sharp decline in maternal mortality rate in the past 5 years by about 22%. It is likely such news items, which could otherwise impact perceptions, skip the radar of TRF’s experts.

Third, the survey in itself has no primary data collection of its own. It doesn’t take into consideration or engages in assessing the countries on key annual statistics like the number of cases pending for crimes against women, child marriage in a given year, domestic violence, female foeticide, and genital mutilation.

Once can, however, induce from the Democratic and Health Survey (DHS) – better known as National Family Health Survey in India – that India ranks somewhere in the middle (21 amongst 43 such countries) when it comes to sexual violence against women in comparison to other developing countries where similar surveys are conducted. It partially confirms earlier doubts that the methodology used by TRF is inadequate.

TRF can improve their surveys in the future by having experts of a given country to give scores in a fixed set of parameters for their own country. The ranking based on the averages for such country would give a clearer comparative picture of the status and condition of women as against the methodology used presently.

Further, the Press Freedom Index (referred to earlier in the piece) presents another built-in difficulty for countries with large a population. The sheer numbers of journalists and media organisations increase the statistical likelihood of being a bad performer.

The problems with the methodology for Press Freedom Index can be read here.

Thus, even if India improves upon its parameters for treatment, conditions and status of women, it is likely that its ranking is going to improve in immediate future. In the meantime, such surveys are unhelpful in keeping track of multivariate phenomena (like women’s safety) in a country, and warrant immediate revisions for greater accuracy.

Also read Criticising the Thomson Reuters Survey on Women’s Safety Is a Classic Deflection Tactic.

Featured image: Simon Williams / Ekta Parishad, Wikimedia Commons

Anuj Aggarwal is a student of law at Delhi University’s Faculty of Law and former spokesperson for the Delhi University Students’ Union (DUSU).

Views expressed here are the author’s own.

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