The Indian city of Kochi is a symbol of progress in India's society, one that is rigidly steeped in tradition. The metro is almost entirely run by women, from the train conductors to the office personnel – to this day a rare sight in the country.
Still, despite the money they earn, these women continue to be squarely disadvantaged by a still thoroughly patriarchal society. Their employment is often limited to menial and low-paid tasks in the informal sector, which is most severely affected during economic downturns.
"When nearly fifty per cent of the labour force is unable to live up to its potential, India is foregoing significant growth, investment, and productivity gains," says Milan Vaishnav, director of the South Asia programme at the Carnegie Endowment. "The social costs, while less tangible," he continues, "are nevertheless acute."
The trend is indicative of the prevailing conservative social norms permeating Indian society, where women are still locked into "traditionally female" roles like running the household and raising children, while men remain the main breadwinners. At 27 percent in 2017, the participation of Indian women in the national labour force is one of the lowest in the world, compared to a global average of 50 percent.
For those few women who actually manage to break beyond the domestic realm, gender segregation often forces them into lower paying professions such as teaching, nursing and cosmetology. Higher paid professions remain the male domain.
These traditional attitudes are also indicative of the way women are viewed in Indian society: as sexualised objects, often subjected to sexual violence. The plight of Indian women is now so great that even the country's supreme court was forced to acknowledge the high rate of sexual violence against girls and women across the country.
And the statistics to back the court's claim are grim indeed. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), a woman in India is raped every six hours. Activists point to a toxic cocktail of sexually repressed men and access to cheap alcohol as a recipe for disaster, along with social pressures where traditional Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Sikh values strictly forbid mixing of the sexes in public spaces.
Yet it is especially in times of conflict when women suffer the most, with backlashes often hitting the female population. While a feminist perspective on war is not commonly included in the mainstream discussion, it nevertheless offers vital insight: it exacerbates the already grim conditions of women living in poverty-stricken areas of conflict, dramatically increasing their risk of sexual violence while blocking access to education, health services, homes and livelihoods.
For example, the smouldering Kashmir conflict has led to minority Hindu women living in Pakistan being raped and subsequently forcibly converted to Islam to hide the sexual assault. In fact, during times of nationalistic upwelling, Pakistan's Hindu populations – like the one in Tharparkar district, which is 80 percent Hindu – is increasingly targeted for "abductions, rape, forced conversions, and forced marriages".
The lingering effect of sexual violence during the conflict has on affected societies can be seen across the world and are by no means limited to India. Take Bangladesh, where the Pakistani Army was responsible for hundreds of thousands of rapes during the Bangladeshi war of independence in 1971. While Bengal women were also fighting for the cause, many were abducted and disappeared into rape camps as part of a systematic plan to destroy the fabric of Bengal society.
Despite this, Bangladeshi society is quiet on this aspect of the war, and the affected women – and their rape babies – were subsequently killed or rejected by their families. A similar fate is shared by where a generation of children known as the Lai Dan Han in Vietnam, who have been growing up on the margins of society. Their Vietnamese mothers were raped by South Korean soldiers during the Vietnam War, and their mixed-ancestry children are now forced to carry their mother's scars on their own faces.
While Pakistan's government officially apologized for its army's ruthlessness three years after the war's end in 1974 as part of a face-saving deal between the countries, Seoul to this day has neither acknowledged nor apologised for the crimes of its former soldiers. An upcoming 2019 inter-Korean summit between South and North Korea, however, could provide an opening for the current South Korean government to apologise. And just as the wounds are not yet healed in Vietnam, Bangladesh too continues to seek out those responsible for the mass rape of girls and women.
Acknowledging the scale of rape, be it in war or peace, would be an important signal of change indeed – a change that is now slowly making itself felt even across India. The country now boasts a growing feminist movement as women break out of social norms and become better educated, enraged and mobilised by a series of high-profile attacks in recent years that have drawn attention to the need to elevate the position of Indian women.
In response, the present Indian government has come to take women's rights more seriously than any previous administration, introducing draconian penalties for child rapists and enforcing educational programmes to change cultural attitudes. The effects are tangible, as seen by the Kochi Metro project, albeit slow to develop. Nevertheless, some experts are convinced that India is now "on the cusp of a generational shift in the perception and treatment of women of India".
Today, as Indian feminists are taking on a broad spectrum of causes including labour rights, sexual assault both outside and within the home, as well as the rights of lower-caste women. As a rising tide floats all boats, Indian men are intrinsically tied to this new wave. India is modernising – and its norms and attitudes must too.