Credit: Ramesh Lalwani on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC 2.0).
NEW DELHI (WOMENSENEWS)–The enormous national and international response to the December gang rape here in the nation’s multicultural capital that left a 23-year-old medical student dead has become a defining moment for Indian women’s rights activists.
Never before, they are saying, have large sections of society seemed so ready to take ownership of the problem of violence against women.
“The spontaneous churning that has taken place is absolutely incredible,” says Kamla Bhasin, activist and advisor of Sangat, a South Asia feminist network, based in New Delhi. “This agency by young people, students, lawyers, doctors, housewives and groups across the spectrum is a defining moment for us. It means violence against women is no longer just a woman’s issue.”
On Jan. 10, five of the six accused faced their first hearing in a Delhi court in a fast track process in keeping with the public pressure for speedy justice.
Bhasin, who has been working on women’s rights for the last 40 years, says the country could be on the cusp of a paradigm change in gender equality, given the broad spectrum of people and institutions that have come together to spur a series of concrete governmental responses to a few intense weeks of public demonstrations.
In the face of demands for better police response, the Delhi state government has appointed a senior police officer to specifically manage complaints of sexual violence and crimes against women. He has already been deluged by complaints.
In 2011, the national crimes-tracking arm of the government documented 24,206 rapes, 42,968 cases of molestation and 8,570 cases of sexual harassment; indicating that on average two women are raped every hour, four are molested and one is sexually harassed. More than 600 rapes were reported in New Delhi alone in 2012. So far, only one attack has resulted in a conviction.
Drawing a Road Map
On Jan. 4, police in New Delhi also began a monthly monitoring and review meeting with women’s groups, which in the future will meet on the last Friday of every month. The police have asked women’s groups to draw out a specific road map for gender training and to help them implement it.
A three-member committee of jurists, headed by former Supreme Court Chief Justice J. S. Verma, has also formed to provide recommendations to the government on amending laws to provide speedier justice and enhanced punishment in sexual assault cases. The committee includes one woman, retired Justice Leila Seth. Its recommendations are expected to be discussed in Parliament in the coming budget session beginning mid-February. This is a special committee and will be disbanded once it hands over the recommendations.
The Delhi state government has appointed a Commission of Inquiry, headed by former judge of the Delhi High Court, Justice Usha Mehra, to look into how the capital can be made safer.
Men are also getting engaged in the efforts for change.
On Jan 11, the Delhi-based organizations the Center for Social Justice and Health and its partner Men’s Action to Stop Violence Against Women drew dozens of men from across the economic and social spectrum to discuss changes in male attitudes and behavior that could make women safer.
“We believe that gender equality is possible through men’s changed perceptions of their masculinity and roles in society,” says Satish Singh, an organizer with the Men and Gender Equality unit of the Center for Social Justice and Health. “If they are given opportunities and spaces to reflect and analyze their situation in the larger context of power and relationships, much can be changed. This is what we started today with 70 men of different ages and from different economic and social backgrounds.”
India ranked 134 in 2011 among 187 countries in terms of the UNDP Human Development Index and Gender Inequality Index.
The Indian government is also mulling whether to lower the age of a minor to 16 from 18 to allow for the possibility of more severe punishment for one of the accused in this gang rape case, who is 17. Under the current law, the maximum sentence for a minor is three years.
Children’s rights activists, including the government’s National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, oppose lowering the age, arguing there is no international evidence showing that harsher laws actually reduce crimes. The more stringent the punishment, the more invisible become the methods and incidences of violence, abuse and exploitation, they say.
The fate of the 17-year-old will be decided after the Juvenile Court collects more evidence and hears the case, currently scheduled for Jan. 15.
In the past, the voices of women’s advocacy groups about the problems of rape and sexual assault have been supported primarily by feminist and gender rights groups. But now they are joined by Citizens’ Collective Against Sexual Assault, which started in New Delhi in early 2012, as a spontaneous reaction to the attack on a woman who was assaulted outside her workplace just outside the city. The collective follows up specific cases of violence against women and raises awareness about these issues to bring about a change in attitude towards women and other marginalized groups.
Political Parties Step Up
Women’s units of various political parties have also raised their voice under a common banner of “Justice for Women Now.” These groups include the All India Progressive Women’s Association, the women’s unit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation and the National Federation of Indian Women, the women’s wing of the Communist Party of India.
The Delhi Commission for Women, an autonomous government body
, also organized a march in memory of the victim, whose real name is being shielded in the Indian press although being openly used outside the country by some protest organizers. Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit was a headliner at the Jan. 2 rally. Female members of the main Indian opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, and its political allies staged a Dec. 20 protest inside Parliament.
The strong coalition that has pulled together has given women’s rights activists a sense of something absolutely new, says Suneeta Dhar, director of Jagori, a Delhi-based nongovernmental organization working on women’s rights and gender equality.
“Women’s groups have been pushing for an end to violence against women for a long time. This is the first time that so many people have connected to the issue. Students and young people have taken the lead and their participatory interactions have taken the issue to deeper level, that of transparency and accountability,” Dhar says.
Dhar adds that Eve Ensler, the New York playwright and founder of One Billion Rising, had expressed her amazement at what is happening during a visit to India earlier in January. “Ensler, who was in India last week in connection with One Billion Rising South Asia, told us she could see one billion rising here already,” says Dhar.
Swapna Majumdar is a journalist based in New Delhi and writes on gender, development and politics.
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