Rarely have I seen a country of 1.2 billion people come together to express one emotion – rage over heinous rape and brutal murder of a young girl in a moving bus in Delhi.
Rarely have I seen a disconnect between a population and its clueless leaders. The government’s attempt to suppress the protests has had the exact opposite effect. It’s added fuel to fire. It has also exposed the disconnect between older leaders and younger protesters.
The whole nation, or at least its educated cities, stands on the streets to seek justice for the rape victim that’s succumbed to her injuries. Their battle is for the dead victim. But more important, their battle is personal too – it’s a fight of each girl and her brother who could be the next victim.
Each girl holding a candle in protest knows that it could have been she taking the bus on that dreaded, cold night in the national capital. Her brother knows that it could have been his sister that was raped by six drunken men before being stripped and thrown out of the running bus on a dark Delhi road at mid-night. Her father knows that it could have been his daughter fighting for her life after her intestines were infected by the iron rod that was shoved into her vagina by the rapists.
This is why men and women are standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the protests. This is rare too!
In a nation where female deities are worshipped alongside male gods, rarely would one believe that female fetuses are aborted as a regular practice. In a nation where the leader of the ruling party is a woman, in a city where the head of the local government is a woman, would one expect that women protestors would be beaten up by predominantly male police staff, before being tear-gased and water-cannoned on chilly winter evenings.
Indian women are so unsafe that a minister admitted on national television that he fears for the safety of his 17-year old daughter. “When I walk with my daughter, I see her being raped by the eyes of many men on the road,” Derek O’Brien, a Trinamool Congress minister said.
Even a former police officer, India’s first female officer in the coveted Indian Police Service category, hasn’t been immune. “There is not a woman in India, including me, who has not suffered harassment in her life,” says Dr Kiran Bedi.
How did India reach to a stage where a woman is raped every 24 minutes? One reason is that there are fewer women in the country today. The country has been killing its daughters at every stage – the numbers of female feticide, female infanticide and dowry-related murders have risen. The world’s second-most populated country now has the worst female-to-male ratio – India had 914 girls aged six and under per 1,000 boys in 2011, down from 927 in 2001. One estimate suggests that there would be 25 million more men in India than women by 2020.
Second issue is men’s prejudices. Mistreating women is deep-rooted in our culture. Rape isn’t just about sex. It’s not just a criminal act. It’s a cultural act.
While talking to a guide at a fort in Jaipur, I learnt that women and men dined in different rooms in the king’s palace during the 17th and 18th centuries. “The tradition is still followed in many households in Rajasthan,” the guide said.
When British India was partitioned to form Pakistan, rape was used as a form of weapon during communal violence. Rape continues to be used by police, army, and upper-caste men to exalt power over women.
A whole generation grown in the male-dominant society of the mid 20th century has raised their children in a similar way. These children, now adults, are faced with working within a more gender-neutral environment. Harassment of women is an unfortunate fallout of this mismatch.
Such mistreatment is now so much accepted and expected that it isn’t even seen as a wrong. If you pick up a fight with an eve-teaser, you would rarely get any support from the onlookers. In fact, in a sexual harassment incident in Mumbai last year, Keenan Santos and Reuben Fernandez – two male friends of a female, were beaten to death by the harassers. A girl as young as two and a woman as old as 70 have been raped in the country this year.
Two levels of solutions have come forward through the outrage – short term and long term. The urgent need is for more and better-trained police officers, more number of female cops, better policing systems, and more staff in Indian courts. The current situation where a court case drags on for years has to change.
In the longer term, there’s a need to change the attitude of men. Gender equality can be reality only if it is practised in the mind of men.
At religious places in India, you will find a natural or enforced segregation of men from women. At social gatherings, men and women tend to naturally form separate groups. The prejudices are so ingrained that they are visible even in the migrant Indian families living in western communities.
Roles of men and women are defined during their childhood and bear distinct traits of discrimination – the woman is trained to cook and tend to younger siblings and older members of the family.
The prejudice continues into school years as girl children are deprived of school education while boys are encouraged to go to school. The male literacy rate in India is at 82% and female literacy rate is merely 65%.
Until India brings up its boys to respect women, the crimes against women would continue to cause sleepless nights for tear-filled eyes.
As Trinamool Congress minister Derek O’Brien says, “We often make the mistake of considering rape as a women’s issue. It is not. It is a men’s issue.”
(Vaibhav Gangan is the managing editor of New Zealand-based The Global Indian magazine)