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What changed after December 2012

As one of the tens of thousands who marched in protest along with my daughters on the streets of New Delhi in December 2012 following the gang rape and murder of a young physiotherapy student, I often find myself asking: So, what has changed? Yes, we have tougher laws. But news of the brutal gang rape and murder of a 28-year-old woman in Rohtak, Haryana, bears uncanny parallels with the Delhi crime two years ago, with one significant difference: The scale of violence seemed higher and the level of outrage was almost absent. Violence against women is the topic du jour, not just in India but all over the world. In the US, the government has stepped in to crack down on an epidemic of sexual violence in colleges and universities where a White House Task Force reports that one in five women is sexually assaulted, most often by someone she knows. In the North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of Congo one in three women has been raped over a 15-year-long conflict; 30% of these women have been infected with HIV. “If a nation wants to become developed…it has to treat its women with respect and dignity,” US President Barack Obama said during his January visit to India. He was the chief guest at the Republic Day parade, which had “women’s empowerment” as its theme. In India, a study by the Washington-based International Center for Research on Women and the United Nations Population Fund found that more than half of the women surveyed said they had experienced some form of violence during their lifetime. In the same survey, over 60% of the men admitted to some form of violence against their wife or partner. Globally, according to the World Health Organization, 35% of women have experienced either intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime. There has been a 69% increase in India over the last decade in general crimes against women that include molestation, rape, domestic violence, and so on. This figure does not include marital rape, which is not recognized as a crime in India. This figure does not include the rape of men and boys because Indian criminal law does not recognize the male victim, and so they do not form part of any statistic or survey. Almost every day we hear astounding statements by politicians and people in authority—the Samajwadi Party’s Mulayam Singh Yadav on how rapists are boys, and boys sometimes make mistakes; the Trinamool Congress’ Rs. threatening his political opponents with rape. The list is long and these are but two examples of the daily assaults on the dignity and agency of women. Is this violence? I would argue that it is, and, worse, it is an invitation to further violence. There are some who would argue that things aren’t so bad in India. After all, in the US a woman is raped every 6.2 minutes, whereas in India it is one rape every 22 minutes. But this is not a competition—my country’s rape record is worse/better than yours—and these crimes are under-reported in every country. Regardless of where you spin the globe, South Africa or the US, Sudan or India, we need to understand the rape culture and how we can begin to end it. An environment that encourages male sexual aggression and supports violence is rape culture, as defined by Emilie Buchwald in her book written along with Martha Roth and Pamela Fletcher, Transforming A Rape Culture. A seven-word sentence sums up the truth we know: Rape is caused by men who rape. Period. But a rape culture leads us to focus, all over the world, on the victim: What was she wearing, did she ask for it, why was she drinking, why was she out alone? What is her past sexual history? In the language we speak; in the images we see on television, film and media; in the lyrics we hear in music; in the wars we fight; in the laws we make and the law-makers we elect, we foster a rape culture all over the world. No country is immune to it. In India and indeed, much of Asia, sons are brought up to be entitled. We expect our daughters to be obedient and submissive. A daughter will spend three-quarters of an hour more than her brother on household work. She will receive less food and less medical attention than him. She is less likely to be educated, and while primary school enrolment rates are up, the secondary school dropout rate for girls is worrying. They are pulled out of school for a variety of reasons. They are married off early (in half of all states in India, half of all women who marry are below the age of 18) or they drop out because the schools they attend do not have separate toilet facilities and, so, once they start menstruating, they find it impossible to attend school. If you look at the statistics, it would seem that things have gotten a lot worse, not better, for women ever since the passage of The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013. The number of rapes being reported went up by 35.2% from 24,923 in 2012 to 33,707 in 2013. In fact, reports of all crimes against women, including rape, abduction and molestation, reflected an increase of 26.7% in 2013 over the previous year. One way to look at this rise is to see it as increased reporting to the police. Women’s rights groups have for long insisted that crimes against women are grossly under-reported in India for a variety of reasons: Our justice system is notoriously slow. The police are reluctant and even downright hostile in registering complaints. And a patriarchal society thinks nothing of victim-blaming and shaming, making it very difficult for victims, or survivors if you prefer, to speak up. So the fact that reported crimes have gone up means, in a perverse way, that things are getting better, not worse. Or are they? In India, women are subjected to violence even before they are born. An estimated 1,300 female foetuses “go missing” every day. The national sex ratio, according to government figures for 2011, stood at 914 girls aged 0-6 for every 1,000 boys of the same age. A cultural preference for sons along with the increasing availability of pre-natal sex screening, which is officially banned in the country, has led to a worsening of the ratio in the age group of 0-6, even as the ratio for the population as a whole has increased. By themselves, statistics tell us nothing. What does it mean in real terms when men outnumber women in society? A society that is dominated by men in terms of sheer numbers is not likely to be in any hurry to end systemic discrimination against women. A lopsided sex ratio means that laws will increasingly favour men, or at least be less sensitive to those required to safeguard the rights of women. For instance, an act of acid violence, the majority of which is perpetrated against young women by men, occurs once every three days. But it was not until 2013 that acid attacks were treated as a heinous offence. Another example: Domestic violence was, until as recently as 2005, considered to be a private matter. A lopsided sex ratio means a shortage of women has led to large-scale bride trafficking in states that selectively abort female foetuses. In the relatively prosperous state of Haryana, where the female-to-male ratio stands at 879 women for every 1,000 men, a field study of 10,000 households found that over 9,000 married women had been purchased from other states. A lopsided sex ratio means that in cities, women feel unsafe using public transport. A recent survey in Delhi found that the main reason why women feel vulnerable on the streets, particularly after dark, is just the absence of other women on the streets. We are denied something as basic as freedom of mobility in public spaces, as the recent rape of a woman by the driver of an Uber cab demonstrated. A lopsided sex ratio means that even while political parties talk of empowerment and gender justice, women who contested the general election last summer comprised just 7.8% of all candidates. Just by way of comparison, 17% of the people who contested the general election had criminal cases against them. So, back to my first question: What changed after December 2012? December 2012 is an important landmark, not just because of India’s changed laws, not just because of the massive uprising on the streets, but because it marks the beginning of a new conversation taking place in India where women and girls are increasingly speaking up, questioning patriarchy and defying strictures. Gender is the new conversation in mainstream media and online chat, in drawing rooms and seminar halls, in police stations and street demonstrations, around dining tables and college cafés. There is no room for silence any longer. Somewhere, a young lawyer accuses a powerful judge of sexual harassment. Somewhere else, a rookie reporter files a rape complaint against her editor. And, yes, some of us also ask: Is change too slow in coming? Will things be better for our daughters, and sons? What we are witnessing is a new clash of civilizations; a clash not between men and women, for that would be tragic, but a clash between patriarchy and those who question it, and are determined to dismantle it. Protest does not take place only on the streets where we assemble. We register our protest also in our private conversations, as we reflect on and reject injustice. Marching on the streets of Delhi, forcing the government to change the laws, that was the easy part. Now begins the long haul of social change—never easy, never swift. Edited excerpts from the Katherine Howard Miller leader-in-residence talk delivered at Scripps College, Claremont, California, US, in February.

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