Women in India: It’s not only the law that needs reform

Guest editorial for the international health policies blog. Co-authored with Radhika Arora.

Six weeks ago a young girl was gang raped in Delhi. She was on her way home

Protestors in Delhi being teargassed

from watching a late evening screening of the Life of Pi. Brutally injured, she surpassed all expectations of any survival; her fighting spirit helped her withstand multiple surgeries, until she died 13 days later on December 29, 2012. She expressed a desire to see the men who raped her (and injured her friend) caught and convicted for their crimes. The incident shook the nation and resonated with communities across the world. Young people took to the streets in several cities across the country amid allegations of over-reaction from the Indian government on the protestors, rather than more necessary structural changes to the Indian judiciary. Fareed Zakaria called it India’s Arab Spring. The paternalistic biases of the Indian society lay exposed, typified by domineering responses from male Indian cinema stars, who in a display of shameless chivalry, talked of protecting a woman because she is fragile and weak, to a national level woman politician proclaiming rape as an end of a woman’s life due to dishonour. Even as they were trying to put their reactions out to the media, their statements belied the nature of our society, a male dominated one.

India’s conviction rate (among the few victims who can bear the difficulty of navigating through a police system perceived as insensitive to rape victims) is dismal at 26%. The outcry that followed the gang-rape was not merely because of the brutality involved in this particular case; it had been ebbing and brewing for decades. Perhaps, some say the outpouring of youth into the streets and the nationwide display of grief to this victim may only show us Indians our urban middle-class focus. What, they ask, did we do when such crimes were happening to our rural women and people from many of the socially disadvantaged groups? But, protest we did, and for good reason. International reaction to the protests has been generally good. Hillary Clinton looked hopeful “…looking for big changes in India in the years to come” and Michael Sandel saw the quick “civic activism and social movements (as a) test (of) its (the democracy’s) claim and hold political parties to account”. The government did get their act together. The Prime Minister has accepted the recommendations of a high-level judicial panel set up to review the country’s law on sex crimes, which called for faster trials, a greater role for women in rape trials and longer sentences for convicted rapists (but not the death penalty which is allowed under Indian law for the “severest of severe” crimes).

But, can the law really change social attitudes towards women? What about the harder questions that Indian people need to ask themselves about how we as a people treat half of our society? What about the blames that our political leaders (no less) placed on short skirts and westernisation as a “cause for rape”, or the “dating culture” and Bollywood as reasons for rape? Questions are often raised about the character of the victim, such as why she was out late at night or what she wore or did to provoke the assault. Victim-blaming in sexual violence is apparently quite prevalent, at least among the Internet-savvy Indian youth as an online survey noted. Even in this particular case, a “spiritual” guru made headlines when he blamed the victim for the rape, because she failed to call her assailants “brother” while they raped her. What about all the other manifestations of the deep-rooted male domination that results in sex-selective abortion, gender-based violence and such? Indeed, much like in health, the social position of women poses barriers to even report sexual violence to the police. Archaic procedures such as the two-finger rape test to “medically diagnose” rape are only being reconsidered now, thanks to the furore over this incident, coming after long struggles by several Indian organisations to amend the procedures followed by doctors to examine victims of sexual violence.

It was in this context that the “manliness” of “protecting women” that was being promoted by official campaigns of the government was questioned by Kavita Krishnan from the All India Progressive Womens’ Association:I am saying this because I feel that the word ‘safety’ with regard to women has been used far too much — all us women know what this ‘safety’ refers to, we have heard our parents use it, we have heard our communities, our principals, our wardens use it. Women know what ‘safety’ refers to. It means – You behave yourself. You get back into the house. You don’t dress in a particular way. Do not live by your freedom, and this means that you are safe. A whole range of patriarchal laws and institutions tell us what to do in the guise of keeping us ‘safe’. We reject this entire notion. We don’t want it.” As a blogger Sunil, makes an eye-opening plea on his blog, there is much more than this one incident in question here: “In a society we have built for ourselves, where anything goes and everything comes with wads of currency, to express outrage over one brutal rape and to be ‘shocked’ by it is the biggest lie we are a part of. What really was so surprising? That someone did it? Or that someone didn’t prevent it ? Or that someone will die ( is dead) ? What utter nonsense! All we had to do was to open the windows of our gated societies and apartments wide enough, we might have heard a thousand drowned screams like this one earlier. We have reached where we have to agitate against ourselves.

In his address to the country on the 64th anniversary of the Indian constitution, the Indian President Pranab Mukherjee noted that the “incident has left our hearts empty and minds in turmoil“. But, new laws and faster prosecutions can only achieve so much. The larger question of the way women are treated in a society will need much more than stronger laws; it will need a fundamental reflection on the way all of us perceive women in our own lives. Indeed, as an editorial in a recent issue of The Lancet noted “…sexual violence must be acknowledged as a reality by all of us, and its causes discussed. We must support the creation of safe systems for preventing, reporting, and remedying acts of sexual violence. As advocates for women’s health, health professionals have a special role in defeating rape”.

Raped at 17 years of age in the 1980s, the police made it impossible to file charges for Sohaila Abdulali. She recounted her experience in a 1983 piece in the Indian journal Manushi  and now retrospects in a 2013 article in the New York Times. Sohaila emphasized the role her family played in enabling her to overcome an experience that “…was terrible beyond words…”. Not just to overcome and survive, but lead a full life. Similarly, another gang-raped girl’s family revealed their daughter’s identity as Jyoti Singh Pandey – indicating no typical socially inflicted “dishonour” for the injustices done to their daughter, but to revel in the movement for gender rights their family’s tragedy sparked. It’s time we exercised our voice more strongly. The greatest respect we can give to the memory of the Indian student who died on Dec 29 is by protecting and strengthening the political and social rights of women worldwide.

Note: This editorial was written on the 30th of January 2013. As of the 2nd of  February 2013, charges have been filed against the accused; trial is scheduled to begin on the 5th of February 2013. On the 4th of February 2013, the President of India, Pranab Mukherjee signed the Criminal Law (Amendment) Ordinance, 2013 (download pdf). The ordinance, based on the recommendations of the Justice J S Verma Committee provides for capital punishment in cases where rape leads to death. It also seeks to use to term ‘sexual assault’ in place of ‘rape’. 



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