Another morning, another news story of a woman being gang raped in India’s cities. This time, the victim was a 22-year-old photojournalist out doing her job, accompanied by a male colleague, shooting photographs of Mumbai’s textile mills in one of the city’s increasingly hip mid-town neighbourhoods.
While verdicts are due to be reached early next month in the case of the Delhi gang rape last December, and in spite of new laws in place to tackle sexual violence, the violence directed against India’s women is becoming a terrifying norm. Changes in the law, which include fast-tracking rape trials to beat India’s slow-moving justice system, are grossly inadequate. It’s the collective consciousness that needs to change. That requires both a top-down and a ground-up approach in which the root causes of violence against women are examined.
India’s politicians have failed, willingly or otherwise, to grasp or tackle what needs to be done to transform the collective consciousness on women’s rights. Delhi’s gang rape, and the public response, shook the politicians out of their stupor. Such was the public outrage that the government immediately formed the Verma Committee to report back within narrow terms of reference and a period of only 30 days to assuage the public demand that “something must be done”. Haste is often the undoing of law-making and this was no different. Some tens of thousands of responses were delivered. The committee, to its considerable credit, did a good job of broadening the terms of reference and considering the broader legal framework of equality and non-discrimination for women.
It was the starting point of a new constitutional framework for India’s women, of whatever class, religion or social background. But political will to uplift the lot of women substantively was lacking. It was easier to let defence lawyers pronounce that “respectable women in India aren’t raped”, and gurus on television blame or deify the fairer sex. It was easier for the morality police to start a backlash against women, banning them from the street, from bars, or requiring them to stay at home. This blaming-the-woman culture is not a peculiarly Indian phenomenon, mind, but tradition worn out and the legislation rushed onto the books was sorely lacking.
The government ignored Verma’s recommendations on police reform and the prosecution of security personnel charged with sexual assault to be dealt with under ordinary criminal laws. In so doing, it has failed to address the underlying malaise within the Indian police force that allows the culture of violence against women to persist. The UN special rapporteur on violence against women, Rashida Manjo, has lamented the loss of the golden opportunity presented to India to establish a full framework guaranteeing equality in line with the committee’s recommendations.
Even as India’s cities are seeing the boom of the middle classes and soaring education and wealth, sexual violence is rearing its head in commercial centres. India is far from being the only culture which denigrates its women, but each culture has to get to grips with the individual way in which it resolves the problem. In India, violence is entrenched through the caste system, religious ideals, social norms and ideas of honour and a woman’s status in the home as well as through a pervasive acceptance of domestic violence in many forms. Women’s activists are creating strong movements for change in the country, and taboo subjects are being raised through fearless journalism and protest. But it is not enough. Change is needed where institutional sexism is rife: at the heart of India’s police force.
Tragedy often has the power to bring about the public outcry to force a government take action to control the excesses of state institutions. In Britain, that tragedy was the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence. The systemic failures within the police force led to the Macpherson inquiry, which coined the term “institutional racism”. In the US, the Rodney King affair of 1991 is seen as responsible for widespread subsequent changes to policing practices, including more community policing, monitoring and changes to recruitment. Accountability lay at the heart of these changes.
Despite news from Mumbai that the police have arrested five suspects already, a plethora of rapes reported in the Indian media this year have been rendered all the more astonishing by abject failures by the police. Change in Indian society and attitudes will only arrive when the enforcement mechanisms are challenged to become accountable themselves. And they will only become accountable once the national discourse on women begins to change substantively. Next month’s Delhi verdicts must be merely the beginning of collective reform. The lid has to be lifted on the failings that permit such abuses against the country’s women.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Schona Jolly is a London-based international human rights and equalities lawyer and writer.