Monday, May 12, 2014

Don’t let it die

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, May 11, 2014

Young girls walk past a market area in Delhi.
The Hindu Young girls walk past a market area in Delhi.

When the election noise subsides, some perennial issues will re-emerge. And one such is how we deal with the growing violence against women in India.

There is little doubt that violent assaults on women have increased. The law is tougher now, but is it being implemented? Recent reports suggest that even today, women have a tough time getting a complaint registered.

In any case, regardless of the law, we know that ultimately it is the attitude of people, and particularly men, which must change if we are to see any serious decline in such violence — both within the home and outside.

In the last two years, rape has been the subject of discussion and debate in India. But attention to it waxes and wanes. For instance, in the last couple of months, there is hardly any mention of rapes. But they are occurring, every day, somewhere in the country.

For the media at the moment, there is only one story — the election. Even if the media gaze were to turn once again to sexual assault, it would not solve the problem. But it would act as an important reminder that here is a problem that is not going away.

In that context, it is interesting to look at the way the United States, which on paper at least has a higher incidence of rape than India — although the higher figures could also be because more rapes are reported than in India — is dealing with the problem, specifically with rape on American college campuses.

According to statistics, there is rape every 21 hours on some college campus in the U.S. The most vulnerable are the women who have just begun their college stints. Nearly one out of every five women going to college is in danger of being sexually assaulted during the years they spend on a college campus. So it is a serious problem; one that has recently drawn more attention as students from several high-profile universities complained to the government about the ineffectual action taken by the authorities when they filed complaints of rape and sexual assault.

In response, US President Barack Obama and Vice-President Joe Biden have taken an initiative that is noteworthy in many respects. They have set up a White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault and launched a public campaign against college rapes. The website is an attempt to reassure any college student who is raped that there is a way that this rape can be reported and followed up. Additionally, a video with several well-known male actors titled “1is2Many” is being widely shown where the essential message is: “If she doesn’t consent or can’t consent, it’s rape, it’s assault.”

In addition to this public campaign, the federal government has also tied funding to universities to compliance with stricter laws on sexual harassment and sexual assault on college campuses. For instance, it is compulsory for all instructors and those in positions of authority over students to undergo training on sexual harassment. This informs them about the existing laws but also tests them on their ability to know which law applies in certain situations and what constitutes sexual harassment. It is the kind of training that everyone who is a manager of any kind should be given. We have nothing like this in India, as far as I know.

Another interesting initiative is called “bystander intervention”. Students receive training on how to intervene when they see a situation where a woman is being forced upon, or is not in her senses and does not know what is happening to her. Students themselves have come up with many different and innovative ways of doing this. It is not vigilantism; it is a way of being aware and concerned. It also involves young men in ways where they see how they can help.

Vice-President Biden is quoted as saying, “It doesn’t matter what she was wearing, whether she drank too much, whether it was in the back of a car, in her room, in the street — it does not matter. It doesn’t matter if she initially said yes then changed her mind and said no. No means no. (Sex) requires a verbal consent — everything else is rape or assault.”

You would think much of what he states is obvious and has been said before. Women have been shouting this from the rooftops for decades. And yet the message somehow fails to get through. Why is society so deaf? Why should women the world over keep repeating the obvious?

In India, the Justice Verma Committee Report and the Criminal Law Amendment Act 2013 were just the first steps after the furore over the December 16, 2012, gang rape in Delhi. There is much more to be done to create awareness, to set in place systems within organisations that give out a clear message that sexual harassment and assault are unacceptable, and to give women the support they need to file complaints and follow through on them. This is a conversation that must not stop. 

(To readd the original, click here.)

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