When will girls be safe?

No country for women

Stop rape sign.

‘Incredible India’ has been in the spotlight over high levels of sexual violence against women, young females and minors for over a decade now. Needless to say, it has gotten worse over these years. The year 2018 saw the gory act of an eight-year-old girl being abducted and gangraped at Kathua, then bludgeoned to death. This incident was preceded and followed by many other ghastly gangrape cases like Unnao, Surat, Manipur, Delhi, Bihar, incidents that revealed that minors are the biggest victims of sexual assault.

According to data compiled by the Delhi police, 282 cases of child rape were reported in the first four months of 2018, as opposed to 278 last year. Then, there was the Rewari gangrape, in which a 19-year-old student, a CBSE topper two years ago, was the victim. It was revealed that an obscene video of the rapists had been posted on Facebook a few days before the act and that the Haryana police had knowingly allowed the rapists — one of them an army soldier — to flee. If that was not shocking enough, an 11-year-old girl who was admitted at a hospital in Delhi was raped by a janitor — even a diseased patient is not spared!

The growing list of gangrape cases has enraged people across the nation, but the sad part is, nothing has changed. Nearly six years on, no lessons have been learnt after the ‘Nirbhaya’ rape case. One must ask, is it a matter of upbringing of male children and teaching them values at home and school or should we make our laws and system more capable? We must worry that in the 21st century, we are still debating safety of women in our country.

At this juncture, it is important to trace the women’s liberation movement that began in the early 20th century during our national struggle. The liberation of women and the national liberation movement were inseparable and this was constantly re-affirmed by the women activists even as their ideas underwent significant changes during the Gandhian era.

This is not to suggest that the process of awakening was complete or that all classes of women shared new thoughts, but the perspective that women should be confined to the house changed and they embarked upon an exciting adventure and initiated an awareness towards women’s liberation. The social reform movements in the 19th century and the impact of Gandhi brought in a drastic change that helped women gain recognition and equality in society.

Gandhi began espousing the cause of women in the early years of his entry into politics. He initiated the reform first in his own house, in his own behaviour towards his spouse and throughout his life, he preached against the wrongs done to women in the name of law, tradition and even religion.

Without Gandhi, perhaps it would have taken many more years for women, particularly in the middle-class milieu, to step out of the threshold of age-old traditions. The transformation of a docile woman into a valiant lady was primarily the work of Gandhi and the world gaped in awe at the phenomenon.

Horace Alexander, an intermediary between Gandhi and the British government, observed: “It was startling when one landed in Bombay in 1930 during the Civil Disobedience movement to go round the city, watching women who had till that day never ventured outside their households even veiled, now sitting openly…composedly plying their little hand on spinning wheels as if they had been in public life all their lives…”

A corrupt system

Yet, today, can women and young girls, after that ‘liberation movement’, venture outside freely in today’s India? The situation today, and the panic that has gripped parents of young girls, reflects on the government’s failure to ensure women’s safety.

The Rewari gangrape case, where there was a deliberate delay in arresting the culprits and the messing up of the probe by the police is a clear example of this failure. The women of Rewari have exposed the corrupt system of police and the State. People are asking: is “Beti Bachao…” merely a slogan? Who will protect our daughters? It’s time the government woke up on these matters.

The need of the hour is for the Centre and the judiciary to become sensitive to these horrific incidents of rape of women and girls and to move to solve this problem. This is more urgent and deserving of attention and action than promulgating an unnecessary ordinance on triple talaq, making what’s already legally invalid into a criminal offence and handing out 3-year jail terms to Muslim men. Is attempting to get a divorce a graver offence than beastly gangrapes?

Women and youth must demand an end to the rape culture by raising their voices instead of tolerating this abomination silently. In the words of Gandhi, “the way to women’s freedom is not through education but through the change of attitude on the part of men, and corresponding action.” Until such change comes about, we should keep asking, however, when will women and girls be safe once again in India?  

(The writer is Head of the Department of History, St. Claret Pre-University College)

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