Look to those most moved by the country's latest encounter with sexual violence.
The recent rape of a 23-year old female student in New Delhi by six men on a public bus was so violent that she was on a ventilator and doctors had to remove most of her intestines. The case has opened a long-festering wound. It has brought the people of the city out to protest on the streets. It has inspired Bollywood celebrities to tweet and even make personal appearances to condemn the incident. It has given the opposition party in parliament yet another thing to shout about and it has shaken the incumbent party from its slumber.
Many are asking for stricter laws and better enforcement of those laws. Some are even asking for the death penalty. But such things would just be a Band-Aid over a more serious wound. The sickness runs much deeper -- and in fact, has spread nationwide. The malaise lies in the generally poor perception of women in Indian society. As Simone de Beauvoir would have quickly grasped, women in India are the second sex.
The preference for boys in so strong and so ingrained that it's rarely questioned. It's prevalent among all castes, economic classes, and genders. Even grandmothers are heard to voice their preference for male grandchildren. And in India, out of reverence for the elderly, where the old go, the young have followed.
This rape, the hundreds of others that are reported each year, and the many more that go unreported are mere symptoms of the bigger problem -- and that too, only one set of symptoms. There is a long list of other forms of violence perpetrated against women throughout their lives, from the time they are yet unborn (female feticide), to when they are young girls (a severely skewed sex ratio for children under age six), to teenagers (malnutrition, anemia, molestation), to adults (dowry deaths, maternal mortality, abuse), to the elderly (ostracism of widows).
While people may squirm when blatantly faced with the issue, for the most part it is all accepted as being part of an ancient culture. The fear among the truly outraged is that in a few days the current protests will subside, the people on the streets will go home and back to their lives, and it will be business as usual until the next case of horrific sexual violence.
While more stringent laws and their implementation are definitely needed, what's more necessary is a change in attitude, a shift away from the prevailing assumption that women are not as valuable as men.
And while people are the problem, they are also the solution. Two characteristics of this case have stirred more people than ever before: the ferocity of the crime and the fact that the victim was from the urban middle-class. People suddenly realized that this could happen to their daughter, their sister, or themselves. We need to maintain and use the momentum of the outraged to spur change. Even if they currently amount to just a small percentage of the total population, given that India's population is a resounding 1.2 billion, even this small percentage forms a sizeable force. They can be used to enact several long-term measures of education and sensitization, beginning with children.
School programs are needed to educate young boys about the damage caused by violence against women. They need to be taught to value girls as people. And they need to understand that no matter how a woman acts or dresses, men do not have the right to rape her. School programs are also needed to teach young girls self-defense and assertiveness. Most importantly, young girls need to learn to value themselves. Unlike what they are shown daily on popular evening soap operas on TV, they must be taught that it is right for women to stand up for themselves and their wellbeing. It is right for them to speak out against wrongdoing. And they should be taught that if they are raped or molested or abused in any way, the shame and the responsibility and the blame lies entirely with the offender, not the victim. And since many teachers and educational administrators are women themselves, they may well be sympathetic to these efforts.
Such messages also need to be reinforced at home. Women in any position of strength and independence have a responsibility to teach their sons to respect the female gender, their daughters to respect themselves, and both that violence is not an acceptable part of any tradition or culture.
Bollywood actors could also get into the act. Instead of just tweeting their indignation for a couple of days before moving on to advertise biscuits and skin-fairness creams, they could use their mass popularity to promote respectful behavior towards women. The venerable Amitabh Bachchan could gently but firmly impart words of wisdom from his position as a father figure. The macho young guns -- like John Abraham and Salman Khan and Akshay Kumar -- could explain that violence against women is just not cool. Actresses of all ages, from Anushka Sharma to Sridevi, could state solemnly that they could only respect men who respect them.
Gender-sensitive education is also needed for the police force. Apart from having more women police officers, the male officers must change their long-entrenched habit of harassing the victim, sometimes even to the point of raping her again themselves. Such behavior should be treated with zero tolerance.
The prognosis for India is uncertain. It is certainly too late for the young lady, who died just before the New Year; her injuries were too severe. It may also already be too late to change the mindset of the majority of today's generation of Indian men and therefore also too late to help the majority of today's generation of Indian women. However, using the strength of those who have been moved by this case, a cure is possible. If over the coming years we can educate children throughout India to value women as equal to men, India has the chance for deep and permanent healing, for a less violent future, and for genuine social progress.
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