|I. Can we move beyond outrage?|
On the 17th of December 2012, India’s capital New Delhi woke up to news reports about the gang rape of a 23-year-old female physiotherapy intern. When details began emerging about the horrors she was put through the previous night at the hands of 5 men (including a minor), it sent the nation into shock. People were outraged both by the brutal nature of the crime and by the fact that 5 men were able to commit it in a moving bus on the roads of the national capital without getting caught. Despite being afforded the best medical care and battling the odds for almost two weeks Nirbhaya (fearless), as she had come to be called by the nation, succumbed to her injuries on the 29th of December 2012.
Public anger after the Nirbhaya case forced the then government to take immediate action on multiple fronts. A Rs.100 crore (~ $15 million) fund was allotted towards infrastructural improvements such as installing CCTV cameras and for setting up an emergency hotline for women. Multiple fast-track courts were set up specifically to deal with cases of sexual harassment and rape. Private buses services came under more scrutiny and night-time patrolling was increased. 4 years later, nothing changed.
A large part of the “Nirbhaya fund” remained un-utilized at the end of that year. An investigation by CNN-News18 revealed that the call center that handled the emergency hotline was severely under-staffed and didn’t have the infrastructure to deal with the volume of calls they received. The courts were still overwhelmed by the number of cases they needed to handle and inspections of private buses and night-time patrolling both reduced in frequency once the public outcry had died down.
It wasn’t the first time India was hearing of such an incident. In a hospital ward in Delhi in 2015, nurse Aruna Shaunbaug died at the age of 66, 42 years after she was raped by a ward boy in the same hospital she worked in. Her case is one of the most discussed in the nation- not while talking about violence against women but in the debate about euthanasia. The attack on her had rendered her unable to move, speak or even eat by herself but she could still feel pain and her eyes reacted to light- the only signs of life left in Aruna in the latter half of her life. Death, as many argued, was a less cruel fate for her.
Aruna in 1973 or Nirbhaya in 2012 were extreme manifestations of a problem that plagues societies around the world- inhumane acts of violence against women. It is estimated that a woman is raped every 20 minutes somewhere in India every day but only 34,600 cases of rape are registered in police stations. 98% of the time, the culprit is the husband or a close relative or someone the victim knows. For reasons including societal stigma, these cases do not reach the doorsteps of police stations which leaves the police helpless but not blameless. The police is infamous for their insensitive handling of cases of sexual abuse- often forcing complainants to repeat their story multiple times to shame them and sometimes asking them to disrobe and show “evidence”. But even in the rare instance when the police files an FIR (First Information Report), the wait for justice is a long and frustrating one and barely 29% of cases end in conviction.
Until 2012, media coverage of sexual abuse was limited to these heinous, gut-wrenching crimes from time to time. A very small number of “mainstream media” organizations covered stories of abuse in daily life. The casual groping on a bus or cat-calling on the streets were common occurrences every woman faced but weren’t “newsworthy” enough to start a national dialogue. The great impact of the Nirbhaya case, and where the media deserves most praise, is the role it played in shattering (to some extent) the taboo associated with speaking about issues concerning women’s safety. Nirbhaya became the faceless mascot of India’s fight against atrocities against women. Everyone had been violently shaken into understanding the seriousness of the problem. Cases of molestation would be featured in the top headlines and, whether out of a fear of being exposed as incompetent on national TV or out of a sense of duty, the police began getting their act together with increased patrolling and a more humane and welcoming attitude towards women who’d come to them with complaints.
In 2013, when the trial in the Nirbhaya case was on-going, the lawyer appearing on behalf of the accused made an appalling analogy and suggesting in not uncertain terms that women must not be allowed to leave the house and that if something were to happen to them, it is their fault.
“Suppose you have a box of sweets and you keep them in front of your house. What will happen? Street dogs will come and finish them (the sweets). But if you keep the same box of sweets in your fridge, will the street dogs be able to eat it?”
The unfortunate reality in India is that his is not an isolated opinion. Women have shattered glass ceilings in fields including politics and business many years before the west but at the same time there exists a section of our population which not only holds regressive opinions but also endeavors, often successfully, to force them on others. Some have claimed that those opinions are held by the old and uneducated while others claim that it reflects India’s urban-rural divide. But these superficial analyses are seldom based on any rigorous research or data. Marital rape and sexual harassment at workplaces are painful reminders that these are crimes perpetuated by people across financial and educational silos. Therefore, while stronger background checks of bus and cab drivers are important, we must be conscious that those solutions are only aimed at one part of the problem. Recent events have proved how easily we will accept allegations against the “village types” for crimes often without any evidence but will overlook those against the “urban types”. My intention is not to point out the blatant discrimination which plagues our society (as it does many others) but instead, I want to emphasize the need for a multi-pronged approach which takes these and other factors into account. Simply calling for harsher rape laws is clearly not the answer. But then, what is? “Violence against women” is not the problem we’re trying to solve. It’s the consequence. It is a consequence of several factors- primarily of patriarchy and of poorly raised men but also of weakly enforced laws and horribly trained policemen, of carelessly designed reporting mechanisms and a terribly understaffed and overburdened justice delivery system. But the encouraging part is that we ask these questions every time a story appears in the news. The disappointing part is that we ask these questions only when a story appears in the news.
Yet, I refuse to believe that our outrage is synced with news cycles. Reading this article, I’m certain, has brought back memories of every single story you’ve heard on TV, Facebook or even from friends. It brings with it anger at the perpetrators, frustration at the apathy of successive governments and soon after, a sense of helplessness. Sometimes we take to the streets to show solidarity and at other times we petition our government online and offline but, unfortunately, they’ve proven inadequate. And it isn’t only about women’s safety. This is true for how we deal with anti-corruption, education, health care, agriculture, pollutions and so on. How do we fix that?
II. Leading from below
Inaction is certainly not an option for our generation. We need to disrupt the social and political status quo and create technologies and processes that actually work. Top-down policy diktats have seldom changed anything in our country in the long term. Token announcements of budgetary allotments and fiery rants on TV channels by party spokespersons are no longer sufficient. We need to get over our cynicism for politics, shed our indolence and realize that a democracy is not just for and of the people- it is also made by the people. And while the protests are great to show support and move governments, we must focus our efforts on being proactive rather than reactive. In reality, seldom do we get opportunities to do that easily. Voting once in four or five years is one of the rare occasions when we, as citizens, make our voices heard to those in the corridors of power (of course, for several reasons, many of us don’t exercise even this constitutional right granted to us). Issues as complex as women’s safety, public health, sanitation, and education among several others, are far too important to be forgotten by the electorate the day after the elections (or the protests). When the election results are out and the new party is in power, will we simply outsource the country’s functioning to a room full of politicians and bureaucrats and let them do their bidding while we go back to our lives? or will we support them, engage with them and start solving problems, faster? This isn’t to say that we absolve government of all its responsibilities. For furthering the public good, we must make sure that those in government have access to the best expertise and if they still fail to deliver, we must be able to move beyond political rhetoric and hold them accountable for it. There are those among us who are terrific lawyers, doctors, engineers, honest bureaucrats, artists, social workers, teachers and those with several other skills. These skills will prove to be invaluable when we dissect the problem at hand. We need to understand how the law works, teach kids and adults new skills and how to be decent human beings, reform ways of working, build tools and apps to solve public problems, run awareness campaigns and do so much more. This doesn’t have to be everybody’s full time job. But when we decide that we want to change something, the question is if we are willing to put our talent to use? And if we are, will government listen?