Rights in the Private Sphere

In India, explanations invoking culture and tradition are often prescribed to justify the continued subordination of the rights of women in the private sphere. Socialized to accept prevailing social norms, women often find disputing the violation of their private rights to be particularly difficult, especially when facing community backlash. Because rights in the public and private realms are mutually reinforcing, the reticence of the state to interfere in matters connoted as personal has victimized women and appropriated a lesser status to rights exercised within the private realm.

The tendency among both governmental and non-governmental actors to view social and economic rights as secondary to political and civil rights has rendered women particularly vulnerable to exploitation. Traditionally, a more prominent focus has been placed on ensuring public rights, namely those designated as political or civil in nature, while the rights to social and economic security have been viewed as non-justifiable and therefore less important.

In accordance with a male-dominated rights agenda, the practice of human rights monitoring in India and worldwide has perpetuated the public-private divide and reduced the ability of female populations to assert their rights in both spheres. Violations of women’s rights in the private realm, including violations of the right to choice in relationship decision-making, contribute to a complex web of gender-based discrimination and abuse. The right to choose if, when, and whom to marry, as well as the exercise of rights during and in the course of exiting a relationship, are critical components of women’s efforts to secure autonomy, health, and development as autonomous and equal citizens. These rights are frequently violated despite the existence of domestic and international mechanisms for their promotion, protection, and fulfillment.

The lack of control that women in India face when exercising their sexual and reproductive rights fuels the continuation of a variety of gender-based abuses, including domestic violence, marital rape, forced marriages, and acid attacks. This denial of agency and autonomy stretches across the population continuum, though notable differences exist according to the socioeconomic attributes of each particular community. Caste, class and socioeconomic hierarchy often influence the nature of community response and the magnitude of social impact when a woman asserts her rights; nevertheless, women across India routinely face displacement, ostracism, loss of livelihood and social support systems, impoverishment, and other forms of deprivation regardless of the communities from which they come.

Even within the social justice sector, women’s groups and human rights organizations have often been hesitant to place priority upon rights in the private sphere, as the sentiment prevails that private rights are secondary to more pressing issues such as healthcare, nutrition, education, or sanitation, among others. While in recent years rights in the private sphere have begun to establish a presence in the media and among governmental and NGO circles as a true issue of concern, the right to choice in sexual relationships is still considered to be a culturally and socially sensitive topic. Among the media, derogatory, inflammatory, or vulgar language is sometimes used to report on right to Choice cases, as sexual autonomy in relationship decision-making has yet to be accepted as a social norm in India. Even after more than ten years of consistent work on the right to choice in relationships, AALI’s engagement with matrimonial alliances has been viewed with open hostility. Through this process, the organization has come to understand the ways in which supporting women’s autonomy challenges the very structure of marriage and family – institutions that have been the site for paternalistic dominance over a woman, her body, and her sexuality.