Will small steps taken to criminalize anti-women prejudices help bridge the gap?

Tuesday, 11 March 2014 14:38 GMT

This opinion piece originally appeared in the Sunday, March 9 edition of the Economic Times of India.

There are very few moments in the history of a nation that manage to bring together people from all paths of life to demand radical change. The 2012 Delhi gang rape is certainly one.

It's one of them because of what it meant across Indian society, and because of what it triggered, both domestically and abroad.

Imposing itself with all its ferocity, the story of 23-year-old trainee physiotherapist who was brutally gang-raped on a bus and left for dead, was undoubtedly India's most covered story around the world in 2012.

Across India, angry multitudes of women and men mobilised. From Bangalore to Kolkata, they took to the streets demanding better safety for women. Tens of thousands signed an online petition denouncing the incident; others replaced their Facebook profile pictures with a black dot, the symbol of the protest. The outcry went global.

Live on television networks, academics debated the reason why the world's biggest democracy had such a poor record on women, Indian politicians were increasingly put under the international spotlight, and ordinary male citizens were forced to acknowledging the scale of the problem. The silence surrounding sex crimes shattered.

It was a defining moment, encompassing and showcasing India's contradictions: a country which had a woman Prime Minister long before Britain or Germany, but still recently ranked as the worst G20 nation in which to be a woman (Thomson Reuters Foundation's poll).

A nation that managed to double its industrial output in less than 20 years (it took Britain 150 to do the same after the Industrial Revolution), but still with a worse gender equality record than post-war Iraq (UNDP).

A country which inspired the world with its non-violent quest for freedom, and that's yet home to half of the world's modern day slaves: 14.7 million people, a number roughly equal to the population of Kolkata (Walk Free).

It is no surprise then that it has triggered a number of changes that could significantly improve the lot for India's women and girls.

The most significant is legislation passed in March last year, which broadened the definition of rape and criminalised unaddressed offences such as sexual harassment, stalking and voyeurism. The law maintains life imprisonment for rape as the maximum sentence, yet sets down the death penalty for repeat offenders and those whose victims are left in a "vegetative state".

The so-called "anti-rape law" sends one message: the Indian government recognises sexual violence as a serious offence.

The four men accused in the Delhi gang rape case were sentenced to death in a trial by a fast-track court which lasted only seven months. The speedy trial and the certainty of punishment should help act as a deterrent, emboldening victims to come forward and seek justice.

But many are skeptical. The outcry over the Delhi gang rape made it an unprecedented case in a criminal justice system that fails thousands of rape victims. For them, the judicial process remains archaic, under-resourced, gender-insensitive and painfully slow.

Last year, the six such fast-track courts set up specifically to hear sexual assault charges, dealt only with 380 cases nationwide, not exactly an achievement in a country which sees one rape happening every 20 minutes.

Greater awareness of such crimes, however, now seems to rising, at least in the big cities. There has been extensive media coverage of cases involving high profile editors, judges and even gurus which have embolden other to come out and seek justice.

In Delhi - which has the unsavoury reputation of being known as India's "rape capital" patriarchal attitudes of police are slowly being dismantled through gender sensitisation training and women's helplines and help desks staffed exclusively by female police officers have been set up.

As a result, Delhi's police say the number of reported cases in 2013 almost doubled from previous year.

The anti-rape law actually went way further than rape, finally addressing two of the most horrendous crimes: acid attacks and human trafficking.

India, which harbours half of the slaves in the world, has finally adopted legislation in line with the UN Protocol, making it a criminal offence to recruit, transport, harbour, transfer or receive a person without their consent or through coercion. After years of being in denial about the issue, this big step in India formerly recognising trafficking.

The greater awareness brought by the Delhi gang rape has also touched on other challenges faced by women and girls in their strive for gender equality in the country.

For example, there is growing momentum to lobby parliament to pass the Women's Reservation Bill, which guarantees one-third of the seats in national and state assemblies be allocated to women. Activists believe this reform, if approved, will become one of the most empowering laws for women in the history of the country.

Big businesses are now increasingly backing women-centric social projects such as sponsoring the education of rural girls or sponsoring campaigns to get more women to vote in India's general election which begins in April.

There are several green shoots of hope. Some are based on statistics, like the fact that there are one million women serving as members in village councils; others are small - yet significant - cultural shifts, such the increasing number of girls taking self-defence classes to combat sexual violence.

Of course, so much more needs to be done, particularly in the rural areas where the vast majority of women and girls continue to live a bleak existence.

Throughout her life - and even before birth - the female is under threat. She is at risk of being aborted due to a widespread cultural preference for son.

If she is allowed to be born, she risks discrimination in nutrition, health and education and may end up being forced into a child marriage. Some 47 percent of women aged between 20 and 24 married before they were 18, according to the government's last National Family Health Survey.

But it does not necessarily stop after marriage, she may face the threat of domestic violence, harassment or even murder over dowry from her in-laws. If she survives all of this, as a widow, her inheritance and property rights may be usurped.

There are plenty of initiatives that could produce an ocean of difference for Indian women in areas such as economic empowerment, land rights and access to health.

But every project with any hope of succeeding in producing lasting effects within Indian society, will have to be driven in conjunction with men. Centuries of patriarchy are not wiped off overnight; hence men must be involved in a radical process of cultural and social transformation, one that closes the gender gap.

Imagine the economic potential of India if its 500 million women were socially and financially empowered. Would Indian men be bold enough to tackle that? The economics say they have no choice.

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