The need to address the appalling status of women in India has taken on a new urgency. Every day new cases of rape are reported, and with each case the unspeakable nature of the crime—the sheer barbarity of the assault—leaves me in a state of utter disbelief. Recently, we had the tragic report of a five-year-old child raped, and then brutalized by her attacker with an 8-inch bottle. She subsequently died. In December 2012 the gang rape followed by the death of Nirbhaya, a young college student, virtually shattered the country and severely tarnished India’s reputation in the eyes of the world.
What is going on here? Is the number of crimes against women in India rising, or is it same old, same old, and the crimes are just being reported more readily? Is it a sign of progress that women are at least, and at last, finding the courage to speak out about the unspeakable horrors they have been forced to suffer in silence? And is society finally waking up to the fact that these acts are crimes—and is it ready to talk frankly and honestly about the underlying cultural causes?
Much effort is required on multiple fronts to address these issues—the ultimate goal being to ensure basic dignity and safety for all women. To be sure, the justice system needs to be better implemented, and the police force needs to be punished for the brutality they themselves unleash against hapless victims. I am sure everyone was horrified to read that when the mother of the five-year-old rape victim went to the police, they offered her Rs. 2,000 (approximately U.S. $37) to buy her silence; in another case the mother was beaten.
The security of women must be regarded as one of the prime duties of the Indian government and its bureaucratic machinery. It has been heartening to witness the massive rallies and hear the angry voices, male as well as female, demanding justice and change that have sprung up all over India in response to the recent tragedies. While these efforts must continue unabated, the fight for dignity (and equality) has to take on renewed vigor.
Dignity is not something that is handed to you. You have to work for it. For Indian women it will come when they adopt a zero tolerance attitude toward abuse—whether it be female infanticide or acceptance of a socio-culturally driven status that determines one’s fate—and access to basics like nutrition, education, health care, and control over one’s body. More often than not, it’s the family who makes a woman’s decisions for her. Beyond a certain age, she is deemed a burden on the finances. The solution in a society where the dowry system is still the norm is to sell her into matrimony.
It is easy to blame the patriarchal culture of India, but one cannot, and must not, ignore the complicity of women in perpetuating the status quo. The mother and the grandmother—women all—inflict the first lessons in abuse and subservience on the girl child.
The issue of systematic abuse is so huge that one blog cannot do it justice. Even, so I am boldly willing to stick my neck out and offer three simple suggestions.
First, the educated Indian woman must stand up against the dowry system even if her parents are in a financial position to give her one. She must do this to set an example. She is free, independent, informed, and better equipped to crusade against the curse of the dowry! The dowry custom casts a very long and dark shadow on the plight of women, irrespective of caste, creed, status, and religion. However, if the educated middle classes stand up against the system, others will surely find the courage, eventually, to say no too.
Second, no woman should be quiet when faced with abuse—physical or verbal—whether against herself or another woman. We’ve all heard relatives make unkind remarks, and yet we stay silent out of respect for elders, a strong factor in India’s value system. This is patently wrong. The agitation for the rights of women will have to come on multiple levels, from the top down and the bottom up, if anything is to be achieved.
Lastly, education, for both genders, which is the focus of organizations like Asia Initiatives, will help shift the sands of culture and lift the country out of the historical quicksand that to this day ascribes hierarchy to a person based on caste, creed, and gender. Education—and equal access to it—is the greatest game changer!
– Meera Kumar, Board Member