I recently met a teenager from India's Dalit ("untouchable") community who had been gang-raped by a group of upper-caste men. She told me that instead of providing support after the attack last September, relatives were humiliating her. "I'm finding it hard to cope with the stigma," she said. "I worry that I will not be accepted by society."
Her attackers made a video of the rape and circulated it. Her father, unable to bear the shame, committed suicide. The young woman confided that she too had suicidal thoughts. "Ever since this happened, I feel like I'm sinking deeper," she said. "It was not my fault, but my life is ruined."
Of all the horrible stories about violence against women and girls in my home country of India, these are the ones that bring home the enormity of the challenge and remind us that the solution will require a total revolution in attitudes—all members of a family, all sectors of society making real changes to prevent such violence and, when it does happen, to support the survivors.
Rashmi Singh, who heads India's National Mission for Empowerment of Women, said preventative efforts, such as those designed to reach men and boys, simply haven't gone far enough. "It isn't being done on a war footing," Singh said.
The war Singh imagines is nonviolent, of course, one whose foot soldiers took to the streets after a 23-year-old woman was gang-raped in a bus last Dec. 16 in Delhi. The woman succumbed to her injuries two weeks later. The story of the ambitious physiotherapy student whose father supported her education by working extra shifts loading luggage at the airport, shocked and saddened the world. Then, in August, another high-profile gang rape of a 23-year-old — this time a female photographer in Mumbai — reignited the outrage.
Violence against women is happening everywhere, from a high school in Ohio to cities in Italy to remote villages in India, where we are drowning in theories on why. People blame rural-to-urban migration, the breakdown of traditional family structures, modernization. Some point to male resentment at being left behind in the workplace or college by ever-growing numbers of confident and self-reliant women. But there is also easy access to pornography on mobile phones and the Internet and a society fed on the lewd innuendos of Bollywood. The lyrics of one popular song have the female lead appealing, "I'm a piece of chicken, wash me down with alcohol." In essence, though, these are all triggers that sit atop a giant, underlying problem: deep-rooted gender inequality perpetuated through discrimination against women.
One undeniably chilling statistic drives home that gender bias: India's female to male ratio today is 914:1,000, the lowest since the country became independent in 1947. Aided by medical technology, people can now get their female fetuses aborted, bypassing the mess of smothering or poisoning a baby girl.
Under public pressure after the Delhi gang-rape, India did widen the scope of what is considered sexual assault and increased the penalty for these crimes. But the government has so far failed to outlaw marital rape.
Stronger laws, however, can only do so much if attitudes don't change with them. If a policeman grew up watching his father ill-treat his mother, saw her being derided when his sister was born, told that women's place is inferior to men, and watched a hefty dose of films with women doing little except gyrate to raunchy numbers, he probably won't take a woman too seriously.
That's why efforts to sensitize men and boys are gaining steam. In 2008, an international non-governmental organization Breakthrough launched the "Ring the Bell" mass media campaign, funded by the Indian government for $2.4 million. It called on men to ring the doorbell if they found women being beaten up in a neighboring house. The organization said that its campaign has reached 130 million people in India and that its "video vans" have reached 7.5 million people, with ads now airing in other countries such as Pakistan, Vietnam and China.
Mallika Dutt, head of Breakthrough, said that the campaign transformed the narrative around the role of men by asking them to take responsibility for violence against women. "It brought men to the issues as part of the solution, not only as part of the problem," she said, describing the problem as a "global human rights pandemic."
Making gender equality part of everyone's life requires reinforcement in every school and broadcasting station, an across-the-canvas movement ranging from strident billboards to movies with strong female characters. The goal must be to foster millions of conversations, among couples, families, in-laws and children —voices of change coming not from one or two messengers but in surround-sound.
There are some signs of progress. States such as Maharashtra, West Bengal, Karnataka and Delhi have introduced gender sensitization into their police training. And an Indian television ad by the Gillette Company calls on men to enlist as soldiers in the "most important battle of the nation" and stop violence against women.
A program run by the poverty-fighting organization CARE in Uttar Pradesh state also is cause for hope. CARE is working side by side with husbands, most of them teenagers, in almost 200 villages, inspiring them to be involved in their wives' pregnancies and take care of their needs.
CARE's Suniti Neogy, who supervises the program, said that the conversation with the young men is not only about medical issues related to safe pregnancy but also about why women shouldn't be doing all the cooking, cleaning, and childcare, especially while pregnant. They also discuss why it's not good for an expecting mother to be the last one to eat at mealtimes, after others have eaten most of the nutritious food. "If they understand equity then they will learn respect," she said. "The rest follows from there."
The program isn't preachy, at times incorporating a game that young couples play as part of a ceremony performed in Hindu households when the bride first enters her husband's home. Under the tradition, the first one to fish a ring out of a bowl of water is said to have the upper hand in the marriage. The ceremony is good fun, with the winner teasing the loser. Relatives watch and remark, "Now he or she will have the ‘say' and the other will follow."
Under the program, someone from the community trained by CARE sits in on the ceremony and, at key moments, steers the conversation. The person might ask why women shouldn't have equal say in buying property or where she can travel (areas normally controlled by men). "It becomes a very lively discussion," Neogy said.
Ramesh Kumar, 27, who played the ring game in August, told me that growing up he had seen his father often yelling at his mother and sometimes hitting her, for small things like putting too much salt in the food. "But my thinking is violence is not good for anyone," Kumar said. "Even if I don't like something, I will explain it to my wife instead of hitting her." Kumar said he and his wife, 25, will make joint decisions on everything from buying groceries to adding a room to the house.
Importantly, the couple's two young sons will be watching. So if Kumar keeps his promise, he will be doing much to break the cycle of violence, Neogy said. The same is true for parents of girls. "If a girl child knows her mother has respect, then she will also expect respect."
These kinds of interventions do cause attitudes to change. A 2007 survey by CARE in Uttar Pradesh found that 63 percent of women thought their husbands had the right to beat them. Yet two years later, following a program to confront harmful gender and social norms, the proportion of women who held this belief decreased by more than 80 percent.
A true cultural shift also means instilling new concepts of masculinity and femininity among children, both at home and at school. With that in mind, India has launched a review of its school curriculum to remove gender clichés. Farah Naqvi, a prominent women's rights activist, points out that texts still carry language like "papa ji ke chashme gol or mamiji ki roti gol" (papa's spectacles are round, and mother's roti is round) positioning the father as the intellectual and the mother as a vulnerable homemaker in a child's mind.
Last winter, I attended a wedding of a friend who is a successful professional. She made a beautiful bride. As the photographers got to work, they asked her several times to bow her head and look shy, while no such request was made of the groom. The bride obligingly lowered her eyes and head as they clicked away.
I look forward to the day when the bride insists on standing tall and proud next to her groom in images to be preserved for a lifetime in frames, photobooks, and the minds of children and grandchildren.
Click here to join CARE's call to make the safety of girls and women a priority worldwide. To learn more about CARE's poverty-fighting programs around the world, go to www.care.org.