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Looking beyond the Delhi gang rape

A fundamental change in attitudes is urgently needed

  • Virginia Saldanha, Mumbai
  • India
  • January 2, 2013
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Delhi's young gang rape victim has paid the ultimate price for being a woman in India.

A few days after her funeral, people will return to their daily routine and the horror of violence against women will recede from memory. It will not be long before we hear of another rape.

Yes we need tougher rape laws, more security for women and speedy justice in the courts for perpetrators of violence. But only a radical change in attitudes towards women can change this continuing cycle of violence against them.

Social attitudes compound the problems victims of violence face by placing the onus and blame on them.

The victim is shamed and feels she is being put on trial for inviting the violence done to her body.

Questions put to her in court are demeaning and put the victim through a mental form of rape.

As a result many victims prefer to say nothing and not file charges or choose suicide.

A lack of will among law enforcement agencies and the judicial system to provide justice for victims of violence has allowed men to maintain their unbridled attitudes towards women and emboldened them to commit violence against them.

In India, caste and class also act as barriers that prevent bringing perpetrators of rape and violence to justice.

The Delhi incident has gripped the minds and hearts of the middle class because the victim was a college student and from the same class.

Rape, murder and all kinds of other violence are done to women of lower castes and classes on a daily basis and are either not reported or are dismissed with a “men are like that” gesture.

These attitudes are learnt by and taught to boys through socialization within the family, in school and in society.

We have to stop and ask, what are the roots of such attitudes that encourage violence against women?

Patriarchal institutions pervade our lives, whether it be the family, society, business, religious affiliation or politics.

We have developed a mindset that allows men the freedom to express their sexuality freely but puts restrictions on women’s behavior and interactions.

Aware of their rights, women are correctly asserting themselves and choosing what they want to do with their lives.

But there is much opposition to a woman’s right to self-determination. Amidst the din of voices providing opinions on how to stop violence against women, we hear a lot about what women should not do, but hardly anything about what men should not do.

While the large number of sympathizers and protesters speaking out against the Delhi outrage is touching, on the other hand there is entrenched misogyny among some prominent people who make the most insensitive remarks about women.

One male politician once dared to ask a woman minister “what she would charge to get raped.”

A female doctor and secretary of a local Lions Club blamed the victims saying: “Women encourage men to commit such crimes, by being out of their homes after 10 pm,” and added “if a girl wanders late at night with her boyfriend,  such situations are bound to happen.”

The BJP party has even suggested a ban on women wearing skirts.

The outpouring of anger and grief at the death of the Delhi rape victim is indeed an iconic moment for the women’s movement in the country to push hard to bring about change.

While it is heartening to see large numbers of men participating in the protests, real change can only be effective if each of those men and women go home and vow to try and change their misogynist mindset.

We need to educate people across the board to change the status of women in India. Education has to be multi-pronged and dovetailed into every aspect of education, academic, social, political, religious and in family life.

Compulsory gender-sensitization training should be imparted to all government and private sector employees including politicians and the judiciary.

It should also be made an integral part of the school curriculum.

Until women are respected and looked upon in equal terms with men in this country, violence against them will continue to haunt society.

The massive protests all over India will go down in history as a great charade of crocodile tears if this moment does not bring about radical change in each of us, beginning with ourselves, in our family, in our workplace. Each of us needs to vow that we will speak out against every form of abuse and violence against women.

Virginia Saldanha is the former executive-secretary of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences Office of Laity with responsibility for the Women’s Desk. A freelance writer, she has a diploma in Theology for Laity from the Bombay Diocesan Seminary and is a woman activist working in India.

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