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Another morning, another Indian rape story: Tackling the underbelly of gender violence

23 August , 2013

A shorter version of this article was published in the Guardian (UK) on August 23rd 2013


Another morning, another news story of a woman being gang-raped in India’s cities. This time, a 22 year old photojournalist out doing her job, and accompanied by a male colleague in the early evening shooting photographs of Mumbai’s textile mills in one of the city’s mid-town increasingly hip neighbourhoods.

Despite verdicts due to be reached early next month in the case of the Delhi gang-rape last December, and new laws in place to tackle sexual violence, the stain of extraordinary violence plaguing India’s women is becoming a terrifying norm.

Changing the collective consciousness from the top and the bottom

Changes in the law, which include fast-tracking rape trials to beat India’s weary wheels of justice, 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 systemic causes of violence against women are examined honestly. Lamentably, India’s politicians have failed, either willingly or otherwise, to grasp or tackle what needs to be done to transform the collective consciousness on women’s rights.

Pushing the politicians

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 Commission to report back within surprisingly narrow terms of reference and within a bizarrely short period of thirty days, no doubt 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 Commission, to its considerable credit, did a remarkably 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 the women or deify the fairer sex . It was easier for the morality police to start a backlash against women, banning them from the street, or from bars, or requiring them to stay at home. This blaming-the-woman culture is not a peculiarly Indian phenomenon, mind, but India’s traditional ethos won out and the legislation rushed onto the books was sorely lacking.

Blaming the politicians

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.  The government failed to criminalise marital rape. This in a country where women’s bodily integrity and dignity are frequently violated through dowry, forced marriage, domestic abuse and acid attacks. In so doing, the Indian government has failed to address the underlying malaise within the Indian police institution 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 for women in line with the Commission’s recommendations.

The spectre of gender violence runs through Indian society

Even as India’s cities are seeing the boom of the middle classes and soaring education and wealth, the sexual violence is rearing its head beyond rural villages, and into the bosom of India’s commercial centres. India needs an approach that tackles a culture whose violent underbelly strikes women on all levels, far from the Gandhian ideals about which the politicians and religious powers like to fawn. This is a violence entrenched through the caste system, in which stories emerge routinely of so-called untouchable women being used like sexual serfs in India, or through religion, in which the deification of women offers respect only to those who fit with socially moulded norms centred on the home as hearth. This is a violence caused by the belief that a family’s honour lies in their women’s chastity or social conduct. This is a violence spilled by genocidal pogroms or army abuses that treat women as the spoils of war. Violence against women starts in India before they are even born, with levels of female foeticide the most damning sign of how little equality is granted to the girl child. 50% of the population, and in some states much less, deserve respect as human beings.  India is far from being the only culture which denigrates its women, we see miserable examples of it everyday in the West ourselves, but each culture has to get to grips with the way in which it needs to resolve the problem.

A movement for change

Women’s activists are creating strong movements for change in the country, and taboo subjects are being brought out of the cold through fearless journalism, protest and movement. But it is not enough. Change is needed where institutional sexism is rife; at the heart of India’s police force.

Reforming the police force

Tragedy often has the power to bring about the public outcry which demands a government take action to control the excesses of the institutions at the top. In Britain, that tragedy was the 1993 racial murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence. The systemic failures within the police force led to the MacPherson Inquiry that coined the term “institutional racism”, seeking systemic changes in order to stamp out corrosive prejudice from the British police forces. In Los Angeles, the 1991 Rodney King affair 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. Neither force could be held up in a show and tell of perfect policing today, by any stretch of the imagination, but the changes required of them undoubtedly have changed national dialogue. The changes forced upon them by tragedy betraying impunity lying at the heart of each system have led to systemic changes in police forces whose coffee-break cultures were institutionally racist .

Lifting the lid on collective failings

India’s police forces needs a similar kick-start at transformation. Despite the news from Mumbai today that the police have arrested the 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. The prejudice against women or girls claiming sexual assault is so ingrained, the culture of destroying the woman if she continues to press charges so inherent in the system, and indeed in society, that only massive institutional changes within the Indian police force will begin to curb, change and improve the situation of women facing violence routinely. 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. The outcome in next month’s Delhi verdicts must be merely the beginning of collective reform. The lid has to be lifted on the silent myriad of failings that permit such a collective litany of abuses against the country’s women.

August 23rd 2013



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