news

UPDATE: In India, gang-rape is just the beginning.

A little girl protests, following the gang rape and death of a woman in New Delhi.

By REBECCA SPARROW

UPDATE:

Only four weeks after the attack and rape of a student on a moving bus in India, another six suspects have been arrested for their involvement in a separate incident – that also involved the gang rape of a female bus passenger.

The facts are truly horrific: A 29-year-old woman was the only person traveling on a bus to her village home – but the bus driver refused to stop at her village, and instead drove to a more secluded location. Once there, he and the bus conductor took her to a building where they were joined by five friends. The seven men took turns raping her throughout the evening, before she was dropped off at her village on Saturday morning.

 Also over the weekend, Indian police arrested a 32-year-old man for raping and killing a nine-year-old girl, whose body was found two weeks after her disappearance. Last week, a seven-year-old girl was raped and murdered in Northern India after being abducted by a youth in a nearby district.

That such heartbreaking news continues to come out of India highlights the very real need for tougher rape laws, police reforms, and a tangible change to the culture of violence against women in the country.

A few weeks ago, Mamamia’s Deputy Editor Rebecca Sparrow wrote about the fact that, devastatingly, these are not isolated incidents and that India is continuing to fail its women.

Looks are deceiving.

A young woman and her boyfriend are offered a lift home by a friendly group of young men on a private bus in New Delhi. It is a trip that will sicken the stomachs of people around the globe, as the girl’s boyfriend is severely beaten and she is subjected to a gang-rape that leads to such incredible internal injuries that she dies days later in hospital.

Looks are deceiving.

At first glance it appears that India is a nation which reveres and respects women.  After all, this is a country which in the 1980s was unafraid to elect a female prime minister (Indira Gandhi ruled 1966-1977, 1980-1984). Embracing strong female leaders continues today. Sonia Ghandi is the head of the current ruling coalition government and Sheila Dikshit has been the chief minister of Delhi since 1998.

The power and influence of women extends beyond politics. This is a nation where an extraordinary number of women run multi-billion dollar companies.

But looks are deceiving.

ADVERTISEMENT

To assume that these achievements mean that there is a strong movement for the equal rights of women in India, is to join dots that don’t actually exist. Rather these achievements lend themselves to a facade of equality. The sorry truth is that India is a nation that is failing its women.

Women take to the streets, demanding justice for victims of sexual violent crimes.

Sexual violence against women is on the rise in India and is not taken seriously as a crime: Gang rape is nothing new. In a country of 1.3 billion people, there were 24,000 cases of rape reported in 2011. And that figure has risen by 25% over the past six years according to Nicholas Kristoff in the New York Times.

This week Human Rights Watch demanded an end to India’s humiliating and medieval ‘two finger test’ on rape victims.  They report: “While conducting medical examinations, many doctors record unscientific and degrading findings, which involve noting the “laxity” of the vagina or hymen, apparently to determine whether the victims are “virgins” or “habituated to sexual intercourse.”

Meanwhile police often refuse to record reports of assault and harassment by women. The public harassment or molestation of women by men in India is nicknamed ‘Eve-teasing’. Each of these tests, these myths, these practices, this slang – reinforces the community perception that women are somehow responsible for the sexual violence committed against them.

Dowry violence remains widespread:  According to the United Nations: “In 2011 alone, the National Crime Records Bureau reported 8,618 dowry harassment deaths. Unofficial figures show that these numbers are at least three times as high.”

Dowry is the payment of cash or gifts or some other valuable security given by the bride’s family to the groom’s family upon marriage. It is not uncommon for a dowry seen as small or insufficient to lead to cases of domestic violence.

Some reports indicate that a ‘bride burning’-  to punish a woman for her insufficient dowry or to eliminate a bride so the groom can remarry – occurs every two hours in India.

An Indian woman on her wedding day.

The number of women forced into prostitution reaches the millions: Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Nicholas Kristof argues that it is countries with the “most straitlaced and sexually conservative societies, such as India, Pakistan and Iran, that have disproportionately large numbers of forced prostitutes”.  When sex outside of marriage is culturally unacceptable for men, visiting prostitutes becomes the acceptable solution.

There are 2-3 million female prostitutes in India, the majority of whom entered unwillingly and who are now trapped – be that for financial reasons, drug dependence (pimps are known to lure young girls in with drugs and alcohol and then keep them addicted so the girls need to stay working in order to maintain their habit) or threats of shame being brought onto their families.

ADVERTISEMENT

Looks are deceiving.

From birth to death, there is an ingrained bias against females in India.  Women are less likely to vaccinate their daughters against incurable diseases than their sons, with girls 50% more likely than boys to die before the age of five.

At the other end of the life cycle, there’s the inhumane treatment of widows; societal taboos mean that widows are restricted in what they can eat, do and wear and in some areas of India are referred to as ‘it’ alluding to the notion that a woman is nothing without her husband.

Just last year  village elders in the eastern state of Bihar placed a ban on the use of mobile phones by women. According to reports, ‘The elders of Sunderbari village announced a $180 fine if a single women or girl is caught using a cell phone, saying the technology spurred sexual relationships, even extramarital affairs.’

So what is the answer?

The intention of this post is not to demonise India. After all, the world’s largest democracy is hardly alone in its failure to protect and uphold the rights of women.

.

Only months ago we read about Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl who was shot by the Taliban for campaigning for the right to go to school. In May, a young Sudanese mother Intisar Sharif Abdallah was sentenced to death by stoning for the crime of adultery.  Her male partner denied the charge and was set free.

Tragically, none of these stories are unique or rare.

But India is a country where many of us thought the lives of women were improving. The occurrance and aftermath of this gang rape in India is a wake up call to all of us who live lives of safety and protection and who take for granted the freedoms afforded to us. We must step up and speak up for the women everywhere who are unable to do so.

What can we do today?

  • We can read Half The Sky: Turning oppression into opportunity for women worldwide by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn and educate ourselves on the plight of women around the world. For when you teach a woman to read, when you grant her access to an education she ensures her daughter will be able to do the same.  And that is how you transform a country.
  • We can log on to Kiva.org and loan $25 to a woman in a developing country who is endeavouring to start her own business and thus become financially independent.
  • We can sponsor the annual education of a girl in India, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Rwanda and help break the cycle of poverty.
  • We can remember Jill Meagher and every other Australian woman who has been the victim of sexual violence – remembering that violence against women happens in our own backyard, as well as around the world. And we must teach our own sons, nephews, grandsons, brothers about the rights of women and that violence is never the answer.

In 2013 we are each citizens of a global community. And on December 31st 2013, our goal should be that we are able to say that someone on this planet is breathing easier because of us.  That we are working to change the world, one sister at a time.

00:00 / ???