It was India's father, Gandhi who famously said that 'poverty is the worst form of violence'. What he didn't say, but what is worth pointing out on the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, is that poverty is a form of violence dealt to some with more brutality than others.
At the bottom of the pool of a nation's cascade of prejudices, are India's Adivasis and Dalit female agricultural workers, possibly the most disadvantaged group in the country. If you thought poverty meant only the hopelessness of homelessness, hunger and starvation, think again. For these women, it also carries with it the possibility of being raped six or seven times a day as a result of their being forced into prostitution as well as daily sexual and physical assault and the loss of their constitutional and human rights to the freedom of movement and the freedom of speech.
86% of India's rural female work force work in the agriculture sector, largely in fields where they are immensely vulnerable to economic exploitation: 30% of them work for no pay on family farms; those who work for others are paid at the lowest rate of of India's most already depressed pay scale. Shockingly the rates they are paid at are at least 30% less than the going rate for men workers.
Hardly any landowners are women. According to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (UNFAO), women account for only 9.5 % of India's landholders: that is 12m out of 120m landlords.
As a result, India's rural economy is delivered to a very large degree by women who are exploited to the degree that they do not have enough to live on, that are vulnerable and without agency. As Oxfam pointed out in its 2013 India Policy Brief:
government schemes to support farmers or extension programmes."
The literacy rate among these women is 58% as compared to the 65% average for the entire female population. Their lack of access to economic resource, the absence economic agency from their lives, their lack of literacy and the inferior status of women and girls in Indian society, combine with dire effect for these women and their daughters-making them the most vulnerable groups in all of India to trafficking and other abuse.
In a 2002/3 UNIFEM and ISS study, women reported being forced (sold or cheated) into sex work mostly by their husbands, lovers, friends and acquaintances. In other studies parents living in poverty 'marry' their daughters knowingly to traffickers in exchange for a dowry: The 'marriage' is a fake one enacted purely as a transactional vehicle for the removal of the girl from her home by the traffickers, and the receipt of dowry by her family. Once the girls are removed from their homes, they are sold by their new 'husbands' to brokers who in turn sell them on to brothel owners. Such 'marriages' are reportedly not uncommon today in Bihar, West Bengal, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Uttaranchal and Hyderabad.
Unbelievably for any democracy in 2013, in their deposition to Justice Verma Committee Report, women's organisations from Banda and Shaharanpur in Uttar Pradesh pointed out that the sale of women and children was rampant in the outlying areas of Saharanpur and some areas of Barelli.
But the sale and exploitation of disempowered rural women of India is not limited to rural areas. The urban slum dwelling population in India is renewed daily by vast numbers of unskilled, illiterate workers arriving from rural areas barren of agricultural yields and other infrastructure, seeking a better life somehow in the cities. According to the 2011 Census:
increment of 91 million...A substantial increase in the urban
population is due to a net rural-to-urban classification and rural-to-urban migration"
This huge scale rural-to-urban migration is feeding trafficking. The majority of the urban trafficked are syphoned by traffickers from the slums where criminal cartels rule. The women and girls are kidnapped from their families or simply lifted into trafficking rings - to join the vast numbers of trafficked prostitutes. Amongst the cities with the highest percentage of slum households are Greater Mumbai (41.3%) Kolkata (29.6%) Chennai (28.5%) Delhi (14.6%) and Bengaluru (8.5%). Not accidentally, Kolkata, Chennai and Delhi possess some of the largest concentration of sex workers in India. Just like in rural India, in the cities, it's the most illiterate and economically disempowered rural women and girls that are most vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.
What would prevent it happening to them is their having their own economic agency. To this end, land reform is essential. Not long after independence, Indian government attempts at land reform legislation, were circumvented by landlords in every state with the exception of Kerala and possibly West Bengal. As a result both men and women workers to this day remain deprived of a legitimate share in the land they farm.
Poverty is the consequence of unremedied economic inequity and of course in India, as in the rest of the world, it affects both men and women. But if there is a war on poverty, let it also considered that there is a horrible, terrible war on women happening in India today and the most numerous and horrific casualties of it are to be found amongst these poorest, most uneducated, most disempowered women.
These are women who deserve a better life: there are women who are working in fields as well as being often the sole domestic caregivers to an entire family; or the women who have been made to leave rural villages to move to urban slums with their families. What they get in return, without any mechanisms for independent economic agency, is the possibility of being sold by their families or intimate partners into lives of torture, enslavement, commercial sexual exploitation and abuse.
For these women and girls poverty contains the seeds of physical and sexual violence and coercion and for that reason, for all women poverty is never just an economic issue but a sexual and political one too.