A Daughter's Death Leads to Society Awakening in India

By N. Gunasekaran

The brutal gang rape of a 23-year-old student on a moving bus in New Delhi and her tragic death outraged the Indian people. The issues pertaining to the status of women in Indian society has taken a center stage in national politics. Thousands of protesters including young women in the streets of New Delhi have broadened the debate on rape, the chain-sexual harassment on women, an institutional and public tolerance of sexual harassment, and an incitement to sexual violence. Gruesome incidents such as acid attacks, slashing of the face, stripping and parading, dragging women to the ground and kicking them on their abdomen, etc, have been brought to light and the fury over the perpetrators of the crimes intensified. These issues, which previously had been the terrain of the Left’s campaign and considered marginal or even taboo on the Right, now are being debated vigorously. The father of the rape victim has rightly said that his daughter’s death has “brought an awakening to society.”

Discrimination against women is widespread in all South Asian countries. Domestic violence, female infanticide, mistreatment of young girls in terms of access to resources, maternal deaths and unequal access to health care are prevalent. Women in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Afghanistan face violence and abuse. Cases of acid attacks on women, violence over dowry demands, and many other barbaric practices are mostly under-reported and rarely lead to police action.

Chief of India’s ruling Congress party, Sonia Gandhi, had to admit that the atrocities on women, both in urban and rural India are “a blot on our collective conscience and a matter of shame.” However, the ruling elites have not addressed the deeper concerns that surround the issues of rape and sexual harassment. The tragic episode in Delhi has highlighted the need for better policing, speedier justice through the courts and tightening up of the laws which deal with sexual assaults and violence against women. While the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Bill, 2010, was passed in Indian Parliament, the proposals of the Sexual Offences (Special Courts) Bill, 2003, have been pending. Sexual harassments in workplaces, as defined in the law, such as an “unwelcome act or behavior directly or by implication of physical contact and advances, or a demand or request for sexual favors, or making sexually colored remarks or showing pornography or any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of a sexual nature” are common occurrences in workplaces.

The government has appointed a three-member committee, headed by former Chief Justice of India J S Verma, to review laws to provide speedier justice and enhanced punishment in sexual assault cases. Flaws in the justice delivery system, such as shifting the burden of proof to the accused which is a stark violation of human rights and rights of the accused within the criminal justice system, have to be rectified. Flavia Agnes, a women’s rights lawyer, noted that India needed “a criminal justice system that works with responsibility, protocols for all stakeholders which are binding and most important, a periodic audit that ensure that the protocols are followed.”

Although the nationwide protest has helped to ignite the discussion on the reforms in the rape law, many argued for easy and quick solutions, disregarding the complexities involved in the issues concerning violence against women. These issues could not be resolved through retributive justice measures such as the death penalty, public hanging, castration or instant “justice” against rapists. The Left, while dissociating itself from the chorus of “death penalty to rapists” suggested that “the maximum punishment should be rigorous life imprisonment for the entire life of the person” in the case of aggravated sexual assault/rape which would include gang-rape, child rape, custodial rape etc. They also demanded that “the legal framework against sexual crimes must make it mandatory to include in all educational syllabi in schools and colleges gender sensitization courses for boys and girls and young men and women.”

Also, examining this issue only within the framework of men versus women or, middle-class women versus lower-class men, instead of seeing it in a larger perspective of gender equality, is not correct. Reactionaries and conservatives are diverting from the core issues. A popular Hindu guru said that the New Delhi rape victim could have saved herself if she had simply “held the hand of one of the men and said, ‘I consider you as my brother.’” Another leader of Hindu fanaticism proclaimed that rapes were mainly occurring in the urban areas where “Western lifestyles” have been adopted. Moreover, women are blamed for wearing skirts, revealing clothing, a lack of overcoats on girls, junk food and the decisions by some wives to work outside the home. They don’t see the fact that, in all countries where patriarchal values persist, violence on women continued. While 50% of women in Bangladesh face domestic violence, the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that “nearly 1 in 5 women (18.3%) in the US have been raped at some time in their lives” (http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/nisvs_report2010-a.pdf).

So, the root causes of increasing violence on women are not country-specific. The subordinate status of women in society and the patriarchal attitudes towards women, their growing treatment as sex objects and the denial of their role and status as equal citizens have to be addressed across the world.

National Crime Records Bureau statistics for India stated that 24,206 rapes were recorded in 2011. Molestation and sexual harassment arrests have almost doubled, from 23,075 in 1992, to 32,581 in 2011. The record clearly showed that the sexual violence over the past two decades has increased. So this is deeply connected with India’s path of development which created new inequalities and intensified the old feudal ones. Neoliberal policies have led to the devaluation of women in the economic sphere. The large majority of women are the workers with bare minimum wages and without any social protection. Acute disempowerment for the mass of Indian women is the dynamics of neoliberalism. The fierce drive for corporate capital accumulation, particularly in the advertisement and entertainment industries commodify the women’s bodies as sex objects designed to please the male gaze. So, the anger and fury in the wake of Delhi tragic episode have to be directed against neoliberalism and its decadent culture.

N. Gunasekaran is a political activist and writer based in Chennai, India.

From The Progressive Populist, February 15, 2013



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