Justice JS Verma’s report on India’s appalling rape epidemic has rightly slammed the government and police for a series of “shocking failures”. The tough new measures he recommends to bring rapists to justice are an important step forward. We must end impunity for those who attack women and girls; we need stricter laws and we need them properly enforced.
But cleaning up the justice system is only one piece of the puzzle.
The key to ending this epidemic across India is a plan to stop the rot at its root, rather than just focusing on how to deal with victims once they have been assaulted. As Justice Verma has pointed out, the sexual harassment endemic in India – the cat-calling, groping and stalking of women – is only the “first step” in a scale that slides up towards violent sexual assault. Such harassment, and its widespread acceptance, is a symptom of a much deadlier cancer, deeply ingrained in the culture: one which will only be cured with a massive, well-funded, government-led education campaign to transform people’s attitudes towards women and girls.
Rape is the fastest growing crime in India – leaping up by 875 percent since records began 40 years ago. In 2011, 65 percent of men surveyed said they thought it was okay to beat a woman; last month, after the brutal gang rape, a survey showed that 92 percent of men in Delhi knew someone who had harassed or sexually assaulted a woman. And little wonder, when a lawyer suggests that the young woman raped, tortured and left for dead on a Delhi bus would not have been attacked if she were more virtuous; when an education minister believes the solution to sexual crime is for girls to wear overcoats; and when even a female scientist blames the victim for fighting back. “Had the girl simply surrendered (and not resisted) when surrounded by six men,” Dr Anita Shukla ventured, “she would not have lost her intestine.”
Such regressive views will not be transformed by stronger laws alone. To overturn these attitudes and stop women feeling under siege every time they leave their homes, India needs a mindset revolution. Today, Avaaz released a report with several case studies showing that, where there is leadership, will, resources and competence, public education can be a game-changer for cultural attitudes and behaviour.
So, the good news is there is a way to do it, and we know it can work. Huge education and awareness drives have slashed HIV infection rates in this country and across the world. Here in India, the Bell Bajao campaign dramatically increased awareness of laws and discussion on domestic violence. And India has shown it can conquer seemingly insurmountable problems – take polio, for example. In 2009, this country still accounted for over half the world’s polio cases, but after two years of intensified public education to overcome fear and perform widespread vaccinations, only one single case was reported in 2011. Now is the time to harness the revulsion and outrage over what happened on that Delhi bus to cure the epidemic of violence against Indian women.