By Ramlath Kavil
Perhaps the only “mistake” the 23-year-old New Delhi gang-rape victim made on the ill-fated night of Dec. 16 was to trust Delhi’s public transport system. In India, especially in cities like New Delhi, despite its being the national capital with enormous security presence and closed-circuit cameras, boarding a bus at 9:15 p.m. can be fatal for a woman, even if she has the company of a male friend.
The young woman was brutally raped and assaulted with an iron rod by six men in what turned out to be a private bus. The assault was so inhuman that it ripped her intestines apart, caused severe genital injuries and on the 29th of December — 13 days later— she died in a hospital in Singapore. The incident roused the nation’s collective consciousness, and a large portion of young India spilled into streets, paralyzing parts of the capital city. Post-independence India has never witnessed such large-scale, spontaneous public outcry over women’s security.
India has often been described as a great paradox. The largest democracy in the world, and a land with a long-celebrated history of non-violent political struggle, is profoundly misogynistic. Sexism has such deep roots in society that it is an acceptable form of discrimination. The son-only culture has affected the gender ratio so much that Haryana, for example, which is just a few kilometres away from the national capital, has reached a stage of importing brides from other parts of the country due to an extreme shortage of young women.
Sex-selective abortion, though illegal, has always been a booming business across the country. Dowry, a practice of giving property and money to the bridegroom and his family, has been held as one of the reasons for the deep antipathy to having daughters, as their birth signals an unaffordable financial liability.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau, rape today is India’s fastest growing crime.
Women’s rights activists in the country have long been asking for societal and legal reforms and accountability from the political establishment when it comes to protecting women’s rights. Sexual violence has an institutionalized status in the country. Deep-rooted patriarchal mores make the honour of the family and community dependent on the chastity of the woman. This society has the audacity to ask its daughters not to get raped instead of asking its sons not to commit rape.
Activists report that a large number of rapes go unreported. Shockingly, on average, every 20 minutes a rape is committed in India, and in the majority of the cases the perpetrators are family members. Even of the registered rapes, conviction rates are as low as 26 per cent of cases. In this context, the more shrill demands to hang the rapists and give the death penalty for rape are not going to make bringing the rapist to book easier.
Rape in India, as in most cultures, is a convenient weapon to be used against women in caste/class/communal conflicts in the country. During notorious Gujarat riots of 2002, the men belonging to the right wing Hindu political outfits used rape as a weapon to teach the minority community a “lesson.” Perpetrators of the riots are still roaming free due to their high-end political connections.
During the 2006 Kherlanji caste massacre, a mother and daughter belonging to a lower caste community were paraded naked and gang-raped before being murdered. In politically troubled areas like Kashmir and the Northeast, the army and police have long been accused of rape and violence. Soni Sori, a tribal school teacher who was termed as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International in 2012, following her arrest on unsubstantiated charges of supporting the banned radical left in India, was subjected to brutal sexual violence in custody which included shoving stones into her genitals. While Sori is still languishing in jail without bail, the cop who was alleged to have orchestrated the violence was awarded the president’s medal in 2012 for professional excellence.
In most cases that involve violence against women, India has often failed to take any productive measures to protect women’s basic human rights primarily because of political pressure.
The horrific Delhi gang rape has given India’s youth, especially women, a platform to express their anguish over India’s abysmal record in defending women’s rights. Spontaneous protests are still taking place all over the country. The extent of outrage in New Delhi was so unexpected, a jittery administration has acted to defuse public mobilization.
The government has appointed a three-member committee to look into possible amendments in the criminal laws in order to provide speedier justice and stringent punishment in sexual assault cases.
The bottom line is — as thousands take to the streets braving water cannons and police batons, especially young women — India is waking up to the slogans that women’s organizations have long been shouting. End violence against women! It is time that India recognized the need to change in order to put an end to the inhuman degradation of its women, and the inevitable decay of the human rights of women.
This article was originally published in the Ottawa Citizen
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