A horrible attack could prove a turning point for India’s women
WHAT stirred so many Indians to rise up and demonstrate at the murderous gang-rape of a 23-year-old woman on a bus in Delhi on a mid-December evening? Not just the fact of the crime: in India rape has long been depressingly common. Nor just outrage at her fatal internal injuries, inflicted by an iron bar allegedly wielded by the six men charged with the attack: Indian women are far too vulnerable to violent assaults. The reason people took to the streets is that a growing middle class is uniting to make its voice heard. The hope is that their protests will at last mark an advance for India’s beleaguered women.
The UN’s human-rights chief calls rape in India a “national problem”. Rapes and the ensuing deaths (often from suicide), are routinely described in India’s press—though many more attacks go unreported to the public or police. Delhi has a miserable but deserved reputation for being unsafe, especially for poor and low-caste women. Sexual violence in villages, though little reported, keeps girls and women indoors after dark. As young men migrate from the country into huge, crowded slums, their predation goes unchecked. Prosecution rates for rape are dismally low and convictions lower still—as in many countries.
Indian women also have much else to be gloomy about, especially if they live in the north. Studies and statistics abound, but India is generally at or near the bottom of the heap of women’s misery. A UN index in 2011 amalgamated details on female education and employment, women in politics, sexual and maternal health and more. It ranked India 134th out of 187 countries, worse than Saudi Arabia, Iraq or China. India’s 2011 census confirmed an increasingly distorted sex ratio among newborn babies in many states, as parents use ultrasound scanners to identify the sex of fetuses and then abort female ones. India is missing millions of unborn girls. Discrimination continues throughout life. Boys in villages are typically fed better than girls and are more likely to get an education. Women are routinely groped and harassed by men on buses and trains. Many Indian brides still pay dowries. The misery of daughters-in-law abused after moving in with their husbands’ extended families is a staple of crime reports and soap operas.
Amid this sea of misery, the anonymous medical student’s fate stood out chiefly because she was representative of India’s emerging middle class. A student of physiotherapy, she was attacked going home from an early-evening cinema screening of “Life of Pi”. She was with a male friend, a young engineer. As someone doing what people like her do across the world every night of the week, she was the friend, sister or daughter of an entire social group. As in the campaign against corruption during the past few years, the protesters’ fury was fanned by non-stop television and press coverage. The street protests were so intense that worried officials resorted to tear gas and curfew-like restrictions in parts of Delhi.
The strength of their reaction means that something good may yet come from this crime. There is no reason to think that India is destined to abuse women. Its biggest religion, Hinduism, is relatively tolerant towards them. India already has a liberal constitution and a host of progressive laws, for example against sex-selective abortion and against dowries. The country has role models: a decent crop of high-ranking women politicians, civil servants, judges and journalists.
Time is on their side
As India shifts from being a poor, mostly rural place to an urban, wealthier and modern one, more women will study, take paid jobs and decide for themselves whom to marry or divorce and where to live. Already, many of the growing band of educated, connected and active Indians are infuriated by the failure of politicians to look after them. They deplore venal party politics. They will increasingly demand that politicians deal with the things that matter to them. The scandal could thus prove a first step on the road to getting the police to take rape seriously and to enforcing the laws protecting women.
But the journey will be a long one. Violence against women tends to reflect how they are treated across society. Attitudes, therefore, matter. India’s film and music industries, for example, should stop depicting men who assault women as macho heroes. The press should drop the use of coy phrases such as “Eve-teasing” when it really means sexual harassment. Those who witness men groping women could confront them. The families of victims of sexual crime should dwell less on the shame they feel they have incurred and more on how to prosecute offenders. The pity is that to change attitudes to rape so many young women have had to suffer and die.
Courtesy : www.economist.com