A judge off-duty saw some men enter the family home, a few days ago. By the time they left, she had been sexually attacked, forced to drink pesticide and left unconscious — the latest survivor of India’s growing crisis of gender violence. Her story captures everything that is wrong with our short-sighted response to the abuse and humiliation of women that is becoming a hallmark of our society.
Could there be a more heartbreaking example of the ad hoc attitude of our state institutions to citizens? Perhaps there could. Perhaps it would be the two young girls found swinging from a mango tree last month, or the subsequent spate of hangings their death inspired. Or perhaps, it would be the housewife allegedly raped by a minister. Or the tittering indifference of our politicians, men who claim to lead but say that rape is “sometimes right”, that “boys will be boys” or that it occurs “by accident”.
Let us be clear — women’s safety depends on political will.
A myth is sometimes put out that development can cure this sickness. While the frequency of violence against women varies across countries, our conviction rate of 26 per cent is above that of France at less than 10 per cent. Eleven per cent of our parliamentarians are women, in England that figure is 23 per cent. In the US Congress it is only 18 per cent.
In this country, though, the people have risen and are looking to this government to act as never before. Luckily we have an action plan for governance. Economists, lawyers, academics and grassroots women’s organisations have brought together research, data and field experience in the National Womanifesto that I helped draft. It’s simple, it’s also sufficient to prevent a lot of this violence and bring better justice and equality. This could be the starting point of a real plan for government.
There are encouraging signs that the government will tackle this. The new prime minister used his first speech in the Lok Sabha to call for women to be respected and protected, and to pledge that the government would act. The language used is of safety and protection, while the Constitution speaks of freedoms and liberties for all. But there is an important overlap and his words are welcome. They will mean nothing though, without concrete steps to tackle the problem.
We need laws to be enforced so inevitably that they will deter violence. Against the rapists in Badaun but also in Jaipur and Muzaffarnagar, in media houses and government quarters. Police reforms need to happen, yes, but service rules for police prosecutors and trial judges also need to change — so recruitment, promotion and penalties include gender metrics. And each ministry needs to sit down and list exactly what it will take to make sure women are safe — more police, more judges, more training, chair and tables, protocols — and lay this out before the finance ministry. We need to prevent violence before it happens — pilot studies in schools, also hearts and minds campaigns targeting men and boys, so that they grow up knowing deep within themselves that women are equal.
Women who have been raped need real support, not pity. The Central government needs to work with state governments to scale-up assistance to rape victims by opening 24-hour crisis and support centres, and legal aid should be made available to ensure that no rapist walks free because his victim lacked the resources to see the case through.
And we must put women in power. Women must be represented in every decision-making body in the country, and men who have committed sexual crimes must be disqualified from public office. The casual misogyny we see in the Lok Sabha must be stamped out and women’s voices heard so their wisdom and leadership can help us solve this crisis.
Of course, if we are serious about cutting out this cancer, we must focus on where it’s ugliest — the police. It cannot be that the people we entrust with our safety laugh in our faces when we report our loved ones missing, as happened to the father of one of the girls strung up last month. The hard-won law of 2013, allowing police officers to be prosecuted if they fail to follow fair criminal procedure, needs to be used, and often.
We must tackle discrimination against women in every way it manifests itself. We cannot ignore the caste divisions that drive so many of these attacks and we must work to root out institutionalised violence against “lower-caste”women, making sure that neither caste nor gender are a barrier to land rights or employment, which have proved important to transform the fortunes of women in society all over the world. Finally, we must recognise that our Central and state governments exist to guarantee our freedoms, to lead towards ending the violence that chips away at the essence of our country. It is not only our children hanging from trees, it is something of ourselves.
The writer is an advocate in the Supreme Court