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Rita Banerji – WNN Opinion

Indian Dawali candles

Diwali candles and pastries celebrate the traditional honoring holiday for moksha - the end of all suffering. With the increase in immigration to Norway, those from regions like India often feel on the outside of the mainstream inside the country. Image: Sam Sharma

(WNN) Oslo, NORWAY: In February 2012, India was involved in an extended diplomatic row with Norway over a child custody case as an Indian couple in Norway had their one-year-old daughter and three-year-old son removed from their home and placed in foster care by the Norwegian Child Welfare Service (CWS).  Though the Indian media and public responded indignantly  believing this to be a case of cultural intolerance for differing child-rearing methods, Norway’s CWS eventually set the record straight.  The children were seriously “damaged” and suffering from severe trauma, with symptoms like “emotional detachment disorder,” from having been subject to and witnessing acute violence at home.  However, prior to removing the children the agency had attempted intensive counseling of the parents.  India remained oddly silent on the violence aspect of this case, despite the fact that studies show horrendously high rates of mortality of childrenunder 6-years in India due to neglect and violence in the home.

In fact even as the legal battle over the the Indian children in Norway continued, India mutely witnessed two high profile cases where baby girls died after being subjected to extensive and brutal violence at home. Baby Afreen, who was only three months old, had shaken baby syndrome.  Medical reports showed that she had deep internal injuries including neck dislocation and bleeding in the brain and in the eyeball, due to the internal head injuries.  Besides suffering from respiratory attack, convulsions and blood in the stool, Afreen also had cigarette burns and bite marks on her body. India however regarded the Norwegian intervention as an affront to its national “sovereignty” and threatened to “stop all business relations [with Norway] as a counter-measure.” Under intense diplomatic pressure, the Norwegian government eventually relented and agreed to give custody of the children to their uncle in India. Now that the children are back in India they will most likely be returned to their parents and will be hereon subject to Indian laws that make no legal provision for prioritizing children’s safety in situations of domestic violence.

This move by the Norwegian government was however unprecedented. Historically, governments have adopted a tacit policy of non-intervention on matters impacting on the rights of women and children, which have been regarded as an individual nation’s ‘domestic concerns’.

This view however has begun to be challenged by cases like the Norwegian child custody case. In 2011, a high level Indian diplomat posted in London was charged with severely assaulting his wife.  While the Indian Commission in the U.K. dismissed this as “marital issues”, which the couple should sort out as “the best way of doing it,” the U.K. government took a strong stand on the case. The British Foreign Office declared that it will “not tolerate diplomats working in the UK breaking the law.”  They further “formally requested the waiver of diplomatic immunity” for the officer. In answer the Indian government refused to give immunity, and hurriedly recalled the diplomat to India, insisting that he should be tried only in accordance with Indian laws

While this no-touch “domestic zone,” reinforced by assertions of culture, is a principle mode of perpetuation of violence against women and children in many communities, western governments and international organizations have been equally responsible in its perpetuation by tolerating it as a cultural prerogative.  What is interesting however is that other cultural practices that don’t impact on women and children, but are still in violation of domestic laws in western countries, are not tolerated in the same manner by the countries concerned.

I will give an example from the Hmong community in the United States.  The Hmong, who are an ethnic immigrant community from South-east Asia, have a custom of “kidnap” marriages where a man can kidnap, rape and hold a girl hostage as the community then recognizes this as a “marriage.” The custom also continues to be practiced in the Hmong-American community in the U.S. In fact, one of my closest friends was a victim of this practice and was fortunate in that her mother rescued her through police intervention and filed a case of rape and kidnapping.  The family was then excommunicated by the Hmong community; which is the main reason why the families of many girls don’t intervene.  School and state authorities, who all too often find a Hmong teenager has suddenly disappeared from school, are aware of the practice but reluctant to intervene.  In fact U.S. courts have often shown leniency towards many cases on cultural grounds.  However another cultural practice that the Hmong brought with them to the U.S. is that of opium consumption for medicinal and recreational purposes. This is not shown the same leniency and tolerance by the U.S. government.

The same sort of ambivalent approach towards cultural practices of minority communities is seen in the U.K. Even though female genital mutilation (FGM) was outlawed in Britain in 1985 the law has never been enforced.  In 2010 it was reported that since then at least 63,000 girls in the U.K. had been subjected to genital mutilation, and that up to 2,000 girls are taken to Africa each year for the procedure.  And while Britain tolerates, or patiently negotiates with what is perhaps one of the most fatal, brutal and systemic forms of sexual violence inflicted on little girls, British animal rights activists did effectively get their government to act against the “cruelty” in the traditional Islamic method of slaughtering cattle by cutting its throat and letting it bleed to death.

This predisposition of governments to treat violence upon women and girls as a ‘domestic’ and ‘cultural’ issue has its basis in outdated laws, which existed the world over even in Europe and North America, where women and children have been regarded  as the actual property of men along with land, house and cattle.  Hence husbands and patriarchal communities have had an undisputed right to “control” women and deal with them the way they see fit as they would with any of their other properties.

This old law has already been challenged and overturned internationally with the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights which guarantees every individual, regardless of gender (and other factors), “the right to life, liberty and security of person.” It is time that governments started recognizing that women and children are not the property of any nation, community or individual; and that governments must safeguard and guarantee the international human rights of each individual woman and child, regardless of whatever nation or community they originate in.  The child custody case battled in Norway is an ethical step in that direction.
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Author, photographer and gender activist Rita Banerji is also the founder of The 50 Million Missing Campaign, a global lobby that raises international awareness about the ongoing female genocide in India. Born and raised in India, Rita has also lived in the U.S. where she graduated with a B.A. from Mount Holyoke College and later received her Ph.D. from George Washington University. Working largely in the environmental field, she has received awards and recognition for her work from The American Association for Women in Science, The Botanical Society of America, The Charles A. Dana Foundation and The Howard Hughes Foundation. Banerji has also spearheaded numerous projects that have had a gender focus, including one with India’s grassroots organization Chipko. Her 2008 book Sex and Power: Defining History, Shaping Societies (Penguin Books) is a historical study on the relationship between sex and power in India and how it has led to the ongoing female genocide. In 2009, Rita received The Apex Award for Magazine and Journal Writing (U.S.).  Her personal website can be found at www.ritabanerji.com

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©2012 WNN – Women News Network
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