India’s human rights activists spark focus on women issues worldwide
As India’s anti-rape protests continue, local activism for women’s rights and security is being thrust onto a global platform. The large-scale protests are inspiring women’s rights activists and lawyers beyond this Southeast Asian metropolis, exposing the extent of violence against women worldwide.
The recent gang rape and murder of a New Delhi student sparked protests across India by women and men who said the country’s legal system needs to do more to protect women against attacks and abuse. What was once a localized issue has raised the profiles of India’s politicians and human rights activists who have long advocated tougher anti-rape laws, major police reforms and a transformation in the way the country treats it women.
Following the Dec. 16 attack, six men were charged with killing a 23-year-old physiotherapy student on a bus. She died from internal wounds in the Singapore hospital where she had been sent for emergency treatment. Police said the men face the death penalty if convicted.
“She has become the daughter of the entire nation,” said Sushma Swaraj, a leader of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party.
More than 24,000 rapes were reported in India in 2011, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. The data can be translated as the equivalent of one woman raped every 22 minutes. By some estimates, only 1 in 10 rapes is reported to authorities.
“To change a society as conservative, traditional and patriarchal as ours, we will have a long haul,” said Ranjana Kumari, director of India’s Center for Social Research. “It will take some time, but certainly there is a beginning.”
Kumari, a prominent activist who is regarded as a leading force in India’s women’s movement, is also president of Women Power Connect, India’s most vocal lobbying organization focused on gender issues, and the national general secretary of the Mahila Dakshata Samiti, a women-centered advocacy organization.
Data show rise in crimes against women
Police records show a high incidence of crimes against women in India. Earlier, many cases were not registered with the police because of the social stigma attached to rape and molestation cases. Official statistics show there has been a dramatic increase in the number of reported crimes against women.
Activists said the reporting of sex crimes and police investigations of rape are hindered by a tendency to blame the victim for not following the traditional, conservative social roles ascribed to women. “This is the mentality which most Indian men are suffering from unfortunately,” Kumari said.
“That is the mindset that has been perpetrating this crime because they justify it indirectly, you asked for it so it is your responsibility.”
Protests spark ripple effect onto worldwide forum
The New Delhi protests have inspired protests against violence on women throughout the world, including neighboring countries such as Pakistan. Although mass demonstrations against sexual violence are a rarity in Pakistan, women’s rights advocates have a 25-year-long history of fighting against repressive rape laws.
Hina Jilani, a lawyer practicing in Pakistan’s Supreme Court and one of the country’s prominent women’s rights campaigners, said the movement is one of the strongest in South Asia, setting “the tone for public protest as an effective mode of compliance with human rights standards by governments, especially in the area of violence against women.”
The protests in India, she said, show Pakistanis “how important it is that the responsibility and the ownership of social action is taken by the public, and not just left to small groups of civil society organizations, or human rights and women’s rights groups.”
She told The World radio show’s Jeb Sharp that the Indian protests reverberated in Pakistan, in protests “in Lahore, in big cities like Karachi. This certainly is something that has inspired a kind of reinvigoration of advocacy on violence against women.”
“Initiatives do not become movements only because of the number of people involved, but can be called movements if there is significant impact of the initiative on the state and civil society, and if they are able to engage the interest of the population in general,”Jilani said in an interview with Asia Society.
“I call it a movement because broad cross-sections of the population in both countries have organized around the issue of peace in South Asia, multiple initiatives have resulted from this collective thinking on the prospects for peace and these initiatives have addressed states and their bilateral policies,” Jilani said.
Ruchira Gupta is another long-time human rights activist thrust onto the national stage. Founder of Apne Aap Women Worldwide, a grassroots organization to end human trafficking, she has worked with the United Nations for more than 10 years in Nepal, Thailand, the Philippines, Kosovo, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, Indonesia, the United States and Iran. In some of these countries, she has helped develop national action plans on women’s empowerment and laws against human trafficking. She developed a manual for law enforcement personnel and prosecutors with United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime [UNODC] being used in India on confronting the demand for human trafficking.
“We need to make efforts to create a society where women and girls can live lives free of all forms of male violence,” Gupta said. “In combination with public education, awareness-raising campaigns, and victim support, the law and other legislation need to establish a zero tolerance policy for sexual exploitation and violence against women.”
“The work to end rape requires a broad perspective and a will to act in a wide range of policy areas. It also requires the involvement and collaboration of a broad variety of public and private actors, besides an overhaul of measures to combat all sexual violence within the justice system. More important, measures that concern protection of and assistance to victims need to be developed and implemented and men, addicted to sexual violence and domination of women, need to be rehabilitated.”
Government, security officials respond with legislation, tactics
Indian politicians from across the political spectrum called for a special session of Parliament to pass laws to increase punishments for rapists — including possible chemical castration — and to set up fast-track courts to prosecute rape cases within 90 days.
The government has proposed creating a public database of convicted rapists to shame them, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has set up two committees to look into what lapses led to the gang rape and to propose changes in the law. The government has promised to improve lighting of roads and public transportation, and has increased police patrols in efforts to ensure the safety of women. Additionally, the Delhi government inaugurated a new helpline for women.
Responding to complaints that police refuse to file cases of abuse or harassment brought by women, the city force has appointed an officer to meet with women’s groups monthly and crack down on the problem, New Delhi Lt. Gov. Tejendra Khanna said.
“We have mandated that any time any lady visits a police station with a complaint, it has to be recorded on the spot,” he said.
Kumari said the Delhi police commissioner recently sent a message asking her group to restart police sensitivity training that had been suspended because of a lack of funds. Radha Kumar, an Indian author and expert on ethnic conflicts and peace processes, said rape is one of India’s most common crimes against women.
Navi Pillay, the United Nations human-rights chief, described the crime against women as a “national problem.”
“What is needed is a new public consciousness and more effective and sensitive enforcement of the law in the interests of women,” Pillay said. “The public is demanding a transformation in systems that discriminate against women to a culture that respects the dignity of women in law and practice,” she said.
“Let us hope that 2013 will be the year the tide is turned on violence against women in India and all women can walk free without fear,” she said, adding that “India has shown through its social reform movements of the past that it can rid itself of a scourge like rape.”