Since we were stunned by the bestial rape of a young physiotherapist in Delhi two years ago, we have travelled some distance on sexual violence. Laws have been enacted, amendments passed, medical and legal protocols established including the abolition of the horrible two- finger test, one- stop crisis centres set up and so on.
Yet, both anecdotal and empirical evidence shows that sexual violence is on the rise. Certainly, the reporting of it is, which means the earlier denial and silence around it are breaking. The increasing incidence has made people wearily wonder why we are not safer — or even as safe — in our cities today t han say t en years ago, why all the talk and action has not led to a tangibly secure environment. Some well-known women activists have asked why the new laws have f ailed to combat sexual crimes, as if laws are the end- all panacea.
Just as laws against kidnapping and murder do not mean an absence of these crimes, the criminal law amendments of 2013 cannot instantly and automatically result in a hazard-free society for women. There are no magic wands to dramatically transfor m the reality that well-publicised cases such as t he Delhi gang-rape and the Shakti Mill gang-rape in Mumbai showed us. There has been sustained noise and some action on women’s safety. If , despite t hese, safety audits turn in results that are not half as reassuring as they should have been, it points to the fact that the causes for sexual violence — whether a stray comment at a street corner or the gaze of the driver of the hired vehicle or molestation and rape — go deeper.
The truth is that sexual violence emanates from fossilised beliefs of patriarchy and power. It is not the cab or the bus or the school or any public place. It is not only the lighting and efficient policing, both of which we need if we are to address sexual violence. It is not even the home versus outside debate; though the focus of safety campaigns has been on public places, t he national crime data shows t hat 90% of serious sexual crimes such as rapes happen in “safe” places such as homes and neighbourhoods, and the assaulter is known to the survivor in more than 90% of the time. Sexual violence, especially rape, is simply and always about a man and his idea of power over a woman.
The recent Uber taxi incident in Delhi is a case in point. It has little to do with the regulation of radio taxis, which is a legitimate issue, but not central to making them safer. It is not about systems such as police verification of drivers because the accused was able to get good character certificates despite a long list of sexual offences. It is definitely not about the time, her clothes or her nap. The incident is about this man’s idea of what he could do to a woman in a vulnerable situation.
Cities draw people because they offer livelihoods, but they are also theatres where patriarchy is being challenged continuously at multiple levels by different classes of women. Women’s safety, therefore, cannot be only about stringent laws, their time-bound implementation, enhanced policing, plugging the gaps in the criminal justice system and so on. It must necessarily address values, beliefs and notions t hat men hold. Women’s safety cannot be ensured unless men and boys are made part of the conversation and campaigns around it, in a sustained and sensitive manner.
It is also, by it s very nature, a work in progress. There are million mutinies to be won in this long battle: in homes, in families, in schools and colleges, in offices and canteens, in trains and buses, in taxis and autos, on streets and pavements, in markets and hospitals, in police stations and cour t rooms, i n our police forces and the armed forces, in governments and panchayats and municipal corporations, everywhere. Such changes are never dramatic, always incremental. If our daughters live in safer environments, the battle would have been half-won.