Sunday, October 25, 2015

Lock up the girls?

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, October 25, 2015

A rally in Hyderabad to protest the rise in violence against women and children. Photo: G. Ramakrishna

Two weeks ago, a woman who lives in the slum near my house came to see me. She looked deeply disturbed. She has a nine-year-old granddaughter who goes to school early morning and returns in the afternoon. Most days, she eats lunch and falls into a deep sleep. That day, while her mother was washing clothes, this little girl fell asleep as usual. By chance, her mother heard something and went up to the loft to check. There she found her neighbour’s 14-year-old son pulling down his pants and hovering over the child, whose undergarments had already been removed. The mother screamed. The boy ran. And the little girl woke up not knowing what had happened.

What should she do, wondered her grandmother. Report this to the police? Others in the slum who had done that got no relief, she said. When she confronted the boy’s mother, she was met with denial. Should the girl’s father beat up the boy and teach him a lesson? But these were her neighbours. They had lived side by side for decades.

How would she be able to “protect” her granddaughter from this young man, or other sexual predators? As both she and the girl’s mother work as domestic help in other people’s houses, the little girl is often on her own. How will they now make sure that she is never left alone? And for how long can they do this?

There are no easy or glib answers to these questions, and few words of reassurance to offer. This woman lives in the midst of a grim reality; they have no private or safe spaces, and all women, young and old, are vulnerable to molestation and assault. And it is not just strangers but the known faces in their midst who are the predators.

The news from Delhi about the brutal rape of two girls aged two and five by men known to them and their families reminded me of this conversation. Such rapes are not new. In Delhi alone, 199 children under 12 were raped last year. Of these, 71 were under six. Nationwide, there were 2,000 rapes of children under 12 in 2014, of which 547 were younger than six.

These horrific statistics do not tell the full story. Yet, it is evident that more child rapes are being reported now than before, as people become aware of the special law for sexual assault on minors: Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (2012) or POCSO. The law is an important first step. But it is just that.

Somehow our politicians fail to understand this. So after news of the rapes came out, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal predictably began slamming the Centre for not handing over the police to the State. And the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) took potshots at Mr. Kejriwal for not keeping women safe in his State. In this political ping-pong, neither side even acknowledged that what we are seeing is a much deeper problem, one that requires contemplation and action, and not empty rhetoric.

Do Mr. Kejriwal or the BJP really believe that better policing can stop this? How many policemen will we need to stop the rapes of children? And if you treat 14 year olds who rape minors as adults, and punish them accordingly, as Mr. Kejriwal has suggested, will it make a difference? Or will families continue to cover up the crime?

Women’s safety, or the lack of it, is only one part of a larger problem. We must ask why we are becoming a society that is not just intolerant but also one where impunity reigns supreme. Everyone believes they can get away with a crime, major or minor. From the policeman who pockets money when someone violates a traffic rule to drunken drivers to child molesters, people think they can get away with it. And often they do. Only the very poor, or those belonging to a minority, get caught. For instance, the woman I spoke to admitted that every time there was a “lafda” (trouble) in her slum, the police would routinely round up all the young Muslim men.

Given this ugly reality, what is the solution? Should we keep our girls locked up for their own good? Should we police their every action? Will that make them feel confident and safe or will it merely make them feel hounded and caged?

Mr. Kejriwal and his counterparts in other political parties need to be reminded that children , like those little girls in Delhi, are raped not by strangers, but by people they know. The problem lies inside our houses andneighbourhoods, within our families. No amount of policing or laws can penetrate these hidden spaces where crimes are committed.

The change must begin with the way boys are brought up. Their sense of entitlement, an integral part of the patriarchal system, needs to end. And they have to be brainwashed, if necessary, to accept that women and men have equal rights.

There are no short cuts to ending this violence.

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