By Swonshutaa Dash and R. Butt
On 13 August, Guwahati High Court granted bail to an accused IIT-Guwahati student for a prima facie rape case stating that the accused was a ‘future asset.’
As a young girl who reads this news, shivers run through my arm. I read it out to my (male) friend who considered the bond for bail and conditioned departure from Kamrup district ‘enough’ penance. He argues whether a future asset should be discarded for a better present or whether he should be preserved for a better future. “What if the victim is lying?” he asks. I don’t know how to reply.
All I know is this: the accused, Utsav Kadam, is the reason my parents will be scared to let me travel at night tomorrow.
He has since been expelled from school, but he will be the reason I cannot drink even if I want to without doubting every sip that I take. He will be the reason that tomorrow I won’t be able to trust my guy friend who, until now, I think, is too human to rape me.
And the Judge, Justice Ajit Borthakur, is the reason why tomorrow, boys will keep being considered “future assets” and girls will be “victims.” These are the roles we are being prescribed by our legal system. These definitions are being set by a court of law. Does anyone ever stop to wonder, “what about her future? What about her ability to be an asset?” But her definition as a victim, it seems, was set in stone the minute she was born.
In 2012, a girl was raped by six men and succumbed to her injuries soon after. The juvenile rapist was sentenced to three years of imprisonment. All accused adults were convicted by 2013, however, it was not until seven years later that they were hanged. Six fast-track courts were created for rape cases but the victim’s father remarked, “The promises of reform are unmet. I feel regret that I have not been able to bring justice to my daughter and other women like her.” What happened over those seven years? The juvenile got out, 8000 more rape cases were seen in 2013 alone. We taught the rapists of this country that it will be at least seven years till they face any repercussions if they get caught, and so they can continue enacting sexual violence at the cost of female lives. We call this case Nirbhaya: a fancy name to shroud the victim’s fate with the incompetence of our judicial system - a case that made no girl feel fearless. And yesterday, we taught women that their value, both in the present and in the future, will somehow always be marginal.
And again with the Hathras rape case. When the victim died on 29 September 2020, the Uttar Pradesh police cremated her body without the knowledge or consent of her family. You think it can’t get any worse than that, but then senior officers claimed that the victim wasn’t raped and that some people had twisted the incident to stir "caste-based tension." When a CBI probe was conducted, the UP government claimed it was a "deep-rooted conspiracy” and an "international plot" to defame the Yogi government. The accused are in prison and claim that the family killed the victim due to her friendship with the main accused which they disapproved of. No one knows what happened. Gangrape charges are filed but the repercussions faced by 19-year-old Dalit girls who are scared to see the light of the day lest they are raped. The media plays the footage from Hathras for four weeks on repeat then snoozes it. A girl from a village cannot go to college because of this.
Regardless of the outcomes of such cases, fear is constant. Even with the fact that I’m a city girl, I acknowledge that there are differences between urban and rural female populations in India. I have the supposed safety of streetlights and phone signals that others don’t have. Yet I feel unprotected. The government doesn’t do anything, the police never believe victims, and the judicial system fails us constantly. Who’s looking out for us, trying to lessen our fear? But the question isn’t even about fear, really. I mean you can’t throw a pen these days without hitting some slogan declaring women as “fearless.” So how do I bridge these? Ah yes, that’s right - the missing link is actual, physical, genuine safety.
Genuine safety is denied to me because my “value” is lesser than my male counterpart, colleague, or peer.
The Value of Life
How do we measure the “value” of a person? I’d like to say by their compassion, how altruistic they are, or something like that. Wishful thinking though. Because the reality is, as humans in the hellscape we call free-market capitalism, we are measured by our economic value. What’s important to the economy is our capacity for productivity, our labour that can be sold and used. Women, however, tend to be valued a lot less, because of the patriarchal roles that we fall into, taking on the burden of unpaid labour, namely household work and childcare. In India, women spend 300 minutes a day on unpaid domestic services while men spend 97 minutes, according to the 2019 NSS report on time use. Because of this, a woman’s economic value appears a lot less than it actually is, as domestic work isn’t included in measures of productivity and economic contribution despite how essential it is to the economy. And if it was valued properly, it would be huge. Women’s unpaid domestic work in India is estimated to be valued at almost 40 per cent of its current GDP.
Now you’re probably thinking, what does any of that have to do with women’s safety? A lot, actually, because if humans are valued in economic terms, then women’s safety is an investment. It’s an investment in a group of people. It’s providing resources to enable both a safer present and a more secure future. And when government institutions fail in providing those resources, and judiciary systems fail to enact consequences on those who violate our safety, it’s telling women that they aren’t worth the investment. It’s reminding us that we occupy a “lesser role” in the grand economy, so our safety is not a priority. And this applies even before a woman becomes a mother or a career because women who do have children often do both paid and unpaid work. It’s because of a woman’s potential to fall into that patriarchal role - often by necessity - that she becomes a liability, while a man becomes 'an asset'. It’s why the female IIT Guwahati student wasn’t considered worth protecting the same way as the male student who raped her, because her potential to be a “future asset” has been presumed less before she even has a chance.
And this doesn’t just happen in India, it happens everywhere. It’s the same logic applied to Brock Turner, a Stanford University student who was given only a six-month sentence (and was released after three) for raping a female student whilst she was unconscious. Not only did the judge Aaron Pesky believe Turner’s side of the story, that the victim gave him consent to have sexual contact with her (because we can all make informed decisions whilst unconscious, apparently), but he thought that a prison sentence would have “a severe impact” and “adverse collateral consequences” on Turner. What about the collateral consequences and severe impact that this assault had on the victim? It wasn’t considered.
Now all of this is bad enough even if we choose to adopt a lens where women do wind up inhabiting their socially-prescribed roles of domestic-worker-lower-earning-victims. But it’s now 2021, and not only do women not necessarily accept these roles, but moreover, the role itself is being broken down into various components (domestic worker | low-income | victim), and women have greater say in which roles they chose to inhabit. While some may choose to retain a domestic role, others rail against it. Some prefer a hybrid of the two. But none of these options, and the value (economic and otherwise) which they would produce, are almost never considered on their own merits in South Asia. A report published by McKinsey Global Institute earlier this year clearly illustrates this gap, estimating that “that India could add $770 billion to its GDP by 2025, simply by giving equal opportunities to women. Yet, the present contribution of women to the GDP remains at 18%.” For a country and a system forever obsessed with economic growth, this seems like an odd caveat to so consistently dismiss, negate, or simply ignore.
As we watch on...
Thinking back to when my friends and I were watching the IIT-Guwahati rape case coverage, one of my friends said, “If at all I were to go with the court’s warped logic for a second, then the girl, who is also a fellow IIT student, is also an asset. Then shouldn't a case of harassment and sexual assault against an asset be treated with more severity than that which was shown in this case?” I ponder this question, whilst others remark their fear and disgust. Some report the accused’s Instagram account in protest. Another friend expresses her anger, but she is, after all, just another young girl like me who can do nothing but crouch behind the veils of patriarchy. My closest friend, with a dejected face, says, “Look at what the ‘future asset’ is doing now. Who knows what he will do in the future?” The victim herself has asked these questions. She said, “If he is being released on bail because he is talented and a future asset, then any future asset can do anything to any human at all. Just because he is a future asset, can he treat a woman like she is beneath him? Just because there is an IIT tag, doesn’t mean he is a future asset.”
This is the result, of the smirks the women get when they accuse ‘all men’, of the shushed sex education and failure to teach consent, the lack of convictions of rapists, the concentration of power in the hands of patriarchal institutions. We sigh and buy another pepper spray because that is all we can do for now.
About the author
Swonshutaa Dash is a student from Mumbai, India. She is an aspiring journalist and a trained professional Bharatanatyam dancer and debate enthusiast. Follow her on @protegeofblue on Instagram for more.