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Women need equality, not protection

Until things change fundamentally, India remains unsafe for females

  • Virginia Saldanha, Mumbai
  • India
  • August 28, 2013
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The gang rape of a young photojournalist on August 22 in Mumbai is just the latest in a string of such brutal attacks across India.

In each case, the media moves into overdrive by capturing every frame and soundbite to maximize the sensational aspects of the crimes. As well, the vocal urban middle class gathers in public squares to express their collective outrage.

But the rapes of poor and lower caste women in remote villages go unreported or get buried in statistical records in the crimes bureau.

Instead of helping to manufacture outrage, the media needs to approach these appalling crimes with greater sensitivity, while focusing on the attackers rather than the victims. This will put more pressure on the legal system to function properly, while ensuring that victims and their families stay out of the public gaze so they can heal.

In the case of the Mumbai photojournalist, the media have targeted the survivor, her family and the families of the accused – thereby compounding their pain.

The photojournalist, who works for an English magazine, was gang raped at an abandoned textile factory in the city, where she had gone on assignment along with a colleague. Police arrested all five alleged attackers in less than a week.

The speed of the arrests is laudable, but the knee-jerk response to the attack by RR Patil, home minister of Maharashtra state, is not.

Patil has offered police protection to all women journalists, a move that implies that women need protection because authorities cannot prevent men from attacking them, or that men lack the capacity to view women as human beings rather than objects to be abused.

The myth that women require protection serves only to restrict their freedom and rob them of their confidence and opportunities.

Authorities have touted the updated Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 2013, but it cannot ensure that police will function efficiently or that the justice system will mete out speedy justice so that survivors of these brutal attacks can move on with their lives. And so, India remains unsafe for all females.

Greater pressure is needed to urge the government to introduce much-needed police reforms that have been in the pipeline for years. Police should not allow politicians to hamper their investigations or divert their attention from preventing crimes.

Various reports have shown that police patrolling is weak in crime-prone areas of Mumbai because nearly 28,000 of the city’s 49,000 police officers have been deployed for the protection of so-called ‘very important persons’, which translates as politicians and bureaucrats.

Also, the government urgently needs to appoint more judges to clear the backlog of cases in the courts and avoid lengthy trials. It is distressing to hear relatives of women who have lost their lives in attacks lament the time it takes to seek justice. They suffer more than the perpetrators, most of whom never get convicted.

The conviction rate countrywide for crimes against women is as low as 24.2 percent. Some 70 percent of rape-accused in jails are repeat offenders. These statistics show that crimes against women are not taken seriously in the country. When this is the message, there is hardly any deterrent for those who commit the crimes. 

How can India change a deeply rooted mindset that views women as objects that are free for the taking by men? And given that society generally looks upon rape survivors as “damaged goods,” how do we help these victims overcome the fear or shame of reporting rape, incest and other forms of sexual abuse instead of remaining silent for the sake of family honor?

Men have been brought up to believe that they are a privileged class and therefore above women. Across class and caste, most boys are brought up like little kings surrounded by doting grandmothers, defensive mothers, subservient sisters and submissive wives. This instills in them notions of power, privilege and entitlement they have done nothing to deserve.

Change of the sort needed in India does not happen in a short span of months. Systems and mindsets must be altered. In the meantime, women will be forced to take responsibility for their own safety. They cannot allow the threat of violence to curb their mobility, their studies or their employment opportunities. Women must remain confident but prudent while enjoying their right to freedom.

Virginia Saldanha is the former executive secretary of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences Office of Laity and a freelance writer and advocate for women’s issues based in Mumbai

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