India’s wake-up calls
India has been in the headlines recently because of three high-profile cases of sexual assault.
In one, a Swiss woman cyclist was attacked and raped by a gang of thugs. In another, a five-year-old girl was brutally raped, and in still another, a young Indian medical student was assaulted and gang raped and her male companion beaten in a bus as it traveled, with its tinted glass windows, around Delhi. After a brave struggle to survive, the victim died, and so the five accused were charged not only with rape and assault, but also with murder.
The Government has acted quickly, setting up 2,000 “fast-track courts” to deal with such crimes all over the country. One of those courts is well on the way to convicting the adults accused in the Delhi outrage. The rapist who was the most brutal and violent, was only 17 – legally a “minor” under Indian law – for whom the maximum sentence would be three years. A Bill is now before the Indian Parliament to reduce the age of majority from 18 to 16, when the offence is rape.
The country has taken these latest atrocities seriously, and a number of actions have been taken. More streetlights are being erected in cities. Tinted window glass in vehicles has been banned. There are more police patrolling Delhi streets. A law was passed in February to curb workplace sexual harassment, and a provision in the Indian government’s most recent budget speech announced a 10-billion rupee (app. $189-million Canadian) fund to address some of the root causes of violence against women.
With all this going on and with talk of chemical castration or even capital punishment for rapists, cases of rape and violence against women and girls continue to be reported in the media – horrible incidents, such as the rape of a three-year-old child, the rape and murder of three young sisters, and so on. “What’s going on here,” you may well wonder?
It may be that there is more reporting and publicizing of such crimes these days. Are all the perpetrators mentally unstable? One newspaper editorial I read put forward the view that Indian women’s liberation from traditional confining customs, illiteracy, and old ways of doing things has now gone so far that some men want to do something to stop this process and push things back, to make women retreat back into the home and not move out freely. It’s all about power, not lust or sex, the editorial said.
And what has been the reaction of the women of India? They have come together to shout, “Enough is enough! No more!” A “One Billion Rising” international campaign culminated in programs in February – street plays, speeches, pamphlets, petitions, banners, slogans, songs, and dances all over the country – which have helped to keep visible the positive public views protesting violence against women.
Many men have joined the campaign against violence on women. International Women’s Day on March 8 took the theme forward all over India. There were many activities involving hundreds of thousands of women and men, in both rural and urban areas. Communities were talking. Violence against women was on the agenda of village council meetings. However, patriarchy is very deeply entrenched in Indian society. Female feticide and female infanticide continue despite all laws and the growing social awareness and abhorrence of these crimes.
Families do not want daughters. Widows and separated women are called “witches,” and this results in social ostracization, which often leads to them being evicted from their homes and villages, or stripped naked and paraded publicly. Many men regard a woman without a man behind her as being weak and helpless, and feel they can do anything they like with her. In such cases, a male relative or another male member of the community often starts the “witch rumour,” after being rebuffed in some way.
It’s the norm in India that men control their wives, mothers, sisters-in-law, and sisters, and don’t let them move and travel freely. If a women rebels, often she is beaten, kicked, or called names. And most men think that it is their right to have this kind of control over their wives and women in the household.
That brutal Delhi gang-rape, and the attacks on that five-year-old and on the Swiss tourist were wake-up calls for this country. The Indian government has acted positively, putting new rules and structures in place. Young people – women and men – across the country are coming together in protest, and are working to bring about change in communities. The focus is on change in attitudes toward women, and “implementation”– of existing laws, new laws, and the need to take action for justice. Violence against women is finally on the agenda of public discourse.
It will be a long struggle to bring about real change, but something new has started in India. I join in the loud and growing cry. I, too, say, “Enough!”
Ginny Shrivistava makes her home in Udaipur, Rajasthan, India, where she is an organizer of the Astha Sansthan, an NGO that has helped to form the gender-equality group the Association of Strong Women Alone. She was the 2005 winner of the Alumni Achievement Award.