The fatal gang rape of a 23-year-old student on a bus in New Delhi last December caused global horror and outrage and forced India to step back and examine the ongoing war being waged against its women. Two weeks ago a high court judge passed death sentences on the four men convicted of the rape and murder, thereby appeasing a public majority who bayed for blood, calling for chemical castration and public hanging. Lawyers for the four have since launched an appeal against the sentence which could take weeks or even months, but one thing is for certain: Even if they are executed, it will not make India a safer country for women.
For hundreds of thousands of Indian women their struggle begins within the womb. According to UN figures, an estimated 750,000 female fetuses are aborted annually, and even if they do make it past the first gauntlet, they face the threat of infanticide, starvation in favor of male siblings, and are likely to endure a life deprived of freedom, education, and equality. For every 1,000 boys under the age of six there are only 914 girls, with some states reporting figures as low as 830. India’s Planning Commission called the gender imbalance “a silent demographic disaster in the making,” which is already beginning to manifest itself in the form of increased sexual violence, polyandry—where brothers marry the same woman—and a surge in poorer parents trafficking daughters as brides in areas where the female to male ratio is skewed.
In the days leading up to the sentencing, an astonishing level of brutality emerged from the Indian public who demanded stoning, lashings, and castration for the convicts, with even high-profile names calling for the death penalty in order to set a precedent and act as a deterrent against future crimes. While it is easy for us in the West to shake our heads and theorize that brutality can’t be fought with brutality, for most women in this country gang rape isn’t a worry when we step out of our front doors and commute to work. My biggest fear is that the Jubilee line might be down—not that I might end up gang raped and beaten to death on a moving bus.
However, by passing the death sentence, the government has done little more than to satisfy the emotional sense of injustice, and hush up the masses temporarily while shying away from the bigger issue: How to prevent the crimes? Rather than focusing on how to treat the symptoms once they bubble to the surface and burst like ugly boils, the root cause needs to be examined and removed.
India is fundamentally a country permeated with both violent language and a violent mentality. From early childhood, phrases such as “I’ll thrash you” and “I’ll give you such a tight slap” are commonplace, bandied around by both parents and teachers alike. Few can claim not to have been on the receiving end of physical violence from family members and many who suffer at the hands of violence go on to perform similar acts themselves. Ninety percent of sexual attackers are known to their victims, dispelling the myth of attackers as evil monsters, far removed from you and me. If the death penalty were invoked more often, India would have to accept that there would be many brothers, fathers, grandfathers, co-workers, and neighbours swinging from the gallows. And what then of family honour, so often called into question when a daughter is raped, but not when a son has done the raping.
Society has to set the standards by which it wants to live and what hope does India have when its own lawmakers set a horrifying example? A Reuters report revealed last week that the cabinet has passed an executive order to protect politicians found guilty of crimes, which could allow convicted lawmakers to stay in office and stand in elections. Since India’s last general election in 2009, an estimated 30 percent of lawmakers had criminal charges against them, which included rape and murder.
To chip away at the patriarchal and misogynistic mentality, education on gender equality has to begin at the grassroots level, within homes and primary schools, and be reinforced with a strong and sustained anti-violence government-funded campaign on television and in cinemas for those who don’t attend schools. The four convicted in the Delhi rape case were all illiterate and had to sign documents with their thumbprints, but they were probably familiar with the latest Bollywood films whose stars could easily be called upon to back such campaigns. It might seem like trying to empty the sea with a teaspoon, but India has already shown that it is capable of achieving the impossible with targeted education. A polio-eradication programme launched in 1985 seemed a futile venture, attempting to wipe out polio from a country as vast and over-populated as India, but with politicians, activists, and volunteers, the country has now been polio-free for over a year.
Ultimately the conversation must continue. Since the Delhi gang rape the discussion over each newly reported rape has subsided faster and faster with social media moving swiftly on to lamenting the fall in the rupee or arguing over India’s foreign film entry to the Oscars, while the everyday rapes, acid attacks, domestic abuse, and violence continue quietly in the background.