Featured Op-Ed

Will the Gender Violence Just Continue?*

Jacqueline Bhabha
Professor of the Practice of Health and Human Rights
Director of Research, FXB Center for Health and Human Rights

India, the birth place of non violence and yoga, has recently become the poster child for gruesome gender based violence (GBV).  Global attention was first alerted to this grave and long standing national crisis on December 16, 2012, when a 23 year old physiotherapy student was brutally gang raped on a bus in the nation’s capital and hundreds of thousands of citizens flocked to the city center to protest.  It was re-alerted 8 months later when a photojournalist was similarly brutalized in India’s commercial capital, right next to one of Mumbai’s most popular high end malls.  And a few weeks after that incident, the rape of a six year old village girl in Rajasthan hit the headlines, not because of the routine fact that a forty year old had raped a six year old (rural victims’ cases rarely get reported) but because the panchayat, the village governing body, had ordered the girl’s parents to get her married to the rapist’s 8 year old son.  Will this violence just continue unchecked?

For foreign observers, these recent reports further mar the India brand – they compound the gloomy economy news about growing inequality, rising unemployment and a falling rupee.  Parents may be less inclined to let their backpacking daughters travel to India, celebratory accounts of the wonders of Jaipur’s literary festival or Cochin’s Biennale are tarnished by a darker perception of the Indian public sphere.  For domestic media consumers closer to Indian news, the prevalence of rape, sexual harassment, marital violence and a host of other forms of GBV, is inescapable but generally ignored. But for Indian women and girls, particularly those who rely on public transport for school or work, it is an overwhelming fact of daily life. Reliable up-to-date data is hard to come by. According to the Wall Street Journal National Crime Records Bureau, 24,206 rapes were reported in 2011, likely a fraction of occurrences given pervasive under reporting.  Women’s and children’s rights organizations such as Majlis and Aangan, argue that public awareness has finally caught up with what they have known and tried to address for decades – an epidemic of gender violence that starts before birth (India’s sex ratio is worse now than it was half a century ago) and feeds off impunity, puritanism and radical gender  and class inequality.  Will this violence continue unchecked?

Government response to the explosion of adverse publicity was energetic. A high level judicial commission, the Verma Committee, set up to investigate the Nirbhaya case (as the Delhi rape came to be called) and GBV more broadly, and to make recommendations, reported with record speed, competence and force.  In line with loud public calls for punitive measures (some Congress MPs even called for castration and death penalty for all rapists!) the Committee directed considerable attention to criminal law reform.  It called for radical change, inter alia to speed up trials and increase convictions in rape cases, to criminalize marital rape, to eliminate chain of command impunity for military and police officers.  The Committee did not limit itself to punitive measures.  It also called for a systemic engagement with preventative approaches, from adolescent and sexuality education in schools, to enhanced protections for street children and other young people brutalized by an absence of appropriate family care.  Taking note of changing youth mores and growing scientific data on adolescent psycho-biological maturation, it also recommended reducing the age for consensual sexual activity from 18 to 16.  It wisely recognized that adolescent homelessness and sexuality were issues that needed to be addressed constructively rather than punitively. In short the Verma Committee called for a dual approach to the GBV crisis – a law enforcement overhaul to radically improve criminal law enforcement and reduce impunity, and a comprehensive set of preventive social and economic reforms to tackle gender norms and roles in school, to enhance adolescent skills and opportunity, and to reduce caste, class and gender based discrimination.  Beyond the Verma Committee report, however, little progress on the ground has been made.  So, will the violence continue unchecked?

On the legislative front, a new law, the 2013 Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, has only partially adopted the Committee’s recommendations.  Except for wives under 15 (nb 18 is the minimum legal age of marriage for a woman) marital rape has not been criminalized, apparently because bringing the law into the bedroom was not considered a good idea. And even where the Committee’s recommendations have been enacted, practice has not followed the law.  For example, fast track court cases have been approved in theory but in practice long delays continue.  Just this past week, nine months after the Delhi gang rape, the court has finally convicted the men involved.  On the preventative front, predictably the Committee’s recommendations have had much less attention or uptake.  The recommendation that consensual sexual activity be legalized at 16 was rejected, with a rabid lobby baying for the blood of the juvenile, allegedly the most vicious rapist in the Delhi case.

The Committee’s  insistence that youth opportunity, gender norms and adolescent education be a prime target of pedagogical and social intervention, has so far fallen on deaf ears.   As a result, educational opportunity, the best route to female protection and social advancement we know, is still radically unavailable.  Sixty-six years after Indian independence, only 50% of 16 year old rural girls attend secondary school; in Rajasthan, the largest state in the country, female illiteracy runs at 66%.  Despite superb work on adolescent education strategies conducted by public entities such as the National Commission for Education Training and Research, and the National Commission for the Protection of Children’s Rights, and by non profits such as the MV Foundation in Andhra Pradesh, the StudyHall Foundation in Uttar Pradesh and Mukhtangan in Maharashtra, little progress has been made in supporting teachers who want to address issues of equal access, sexuality, gender roles and reproductive rights and health in the classroom.  Meanwhile information technology makes violent and sexually explicit imagery widely available, while consensual adolescent sexual experiences remain largely inaccessible and socially proscribed. Small wonder, perhaps, that, the number of rapes committed by juveniles more than doubled in the last ten years. So, will the violence continue unchecked?

We hope not.  But change requires dramatic intervention in gender relations and in the balance of power between boys and girls, men and women.  Prosecutions and convictions alone, critically important as they are, will not do the trick.  Attitudinal shifts, incentives that validate male/female collegiality rather than predation, and much more radical equality between the sexes need to be scaled.  So do alternatives to early marriage, and to female financial dependency.  A set of Harvard research initiatives addresses, together with local Indian partners, some of these complex issues.  The Champions research project, now in its second year, investigates the factors that enable low caste girls from illiterate backgrounds to make it to college.  How, we ask, have these “champions” become positive deviants, successfully engaged in higher education and self improvement when most of their peers are already married and bearing children?  Data from our first round of research, in Maharashtra, is depressing. It suggests that government programs have contributed very little.  Scholarships are hard to access, application forms for stipends are unavailable and daunting, transport schemes are generally co-ed and not regarded as safe.  What really makes a difference, according to our findings, is parental mentorship (agreeing to delay a daughter’s marriage, take on her housework, scrape together resources to support her) and individual resilience (in the face of persistent harassment and abuse). The research team is launching Champions phase two in Rajasthan.  Another initiative targets adolescent education.  Its main goal is to figure out how high quality sexual education and reproductive rights curricula developed decades ago can be moved from ministerial shelves into classrooms.  What political and educational incentives need to be in place to displace the very widespread notion that sexual education equals encouraging sex?  What do teachers need to get the clout to implement radically new teaching syllabi and methodologies?  What steps must be taken to enable Indian boys to demonstrate their virility and strength in collaborative, gender respectful rather than belligerent ways?  And finally, what forms of empowerment and support do young women need to turn the tables on their predators?  A joint team of educators, researchers and politicians is addressing these questions.  Stay tuned.

*To be published in the South Asia Institute’s inaugural publication focused on global health.