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HindustanTimes Tue,21 Oct 2014
No going back from here
Namita Bhandare, Hindustan Times
September 14, 2013
First Published: 00:34 IST(14/9/2013)
Last Updated: 02:16 IST(14/9/2013)

So what changes now? Now that four convicts in the Delhi gang-rape case have been sentenced to death will your daughter be able to take a bus from a late evening film show without worrying about making it safely home?

Can I make eye contact with strange men on the street without a returning leer? Will missing street lights on deserted roads miraculously light up?

A stiff sentence, no matter how well-deserved, is the easiest path to retribution and collective chest thumping. The public rage against a senseless, brutal crime on the night of December 16 is drawing to its logical end.

The road has been bumpy, but not uneventful: Changed laws, greater media focus and the subject of violence against women dragged out of the shadows into mainstream discourse.

That's the good news. But India's 9/11 rape report, the day that prosecution and defence lawyers were arguing for and against the death sentence, remains grim. News of another gang rape in Bandra, Mumbai filters out.

In Chandigarh, a three-year-old remains in critical condition after being gang-raped. A 28-year-old married woman in Murshidabad, West Bengal, is gang-raped in front of her children. And just 100 km away from Bhubaneswar, a 17-year-old is abducted and kept captive for three days while she is raped by multiple men.

News agencies report that in the first eight months of this year, 1,121 rape cases have been registered in Delhi alone, more than twice the cases registered for the same period the previous year. Other figures are as worrying.

A United Nations report finds that one in four men surveyed in Asia (India was excluded from the study) admitted to having raped at least once, while one in 10 said they had raped a woman who wasn't their partner.

Rape is the most obvious manifestation of violence against women but it is by no means the only one. Sex selective abortion, malnutrition and systemic discrimination against the girl child, domestic violence, stalking, sexual harassment, the list is long.

One way to fight violence against women is through tougher laws and better policing. But how do you begin to confront the violence in homes where sons are brought up with a sense of entitlement and daughters with the idea that they are subservient?

A 2012 Unicef (United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund) report finds that 57% boys and 53% girls believed it was ok for a man to beat his wife. If close to 94% rapes are committed by men known to women, then we need to ask who amongst us are these fathers and brothers and uncles.

The path-breaking Justice JS Verma report recommended making marital rape an offence but found few takers among our legislators or indeed the public at large.

Around the world women face a tough, uphill battle. Globally, finds the World Health Organizaton (WHO), one in three women will face some sort of sexual or physical violence in her lifetime. This, says WHO, is a 'global health problem of epidemic proportions'.

The United States reports 27.6 rapes per 100,000 people. India seems better off with only 1.8 but this is reflective of a weaker reporting system where notions of honour and shame prevent rape survivors from speaking up.

When they do, trials drag on for years - there are over 23,000 cases of rape pending before the various high courts - and conviction rates are abysmal.

So what now? Now that judgment has been delivered do we lapse back into our usual somnolence?

If there's one thing to learn from the lessons of the past few months it is this: there is no going back. At the heart of the issue is not rape or the merits of the death sentence or the need to relook the Juvenile Justice Act.

At the heart is patriarchy and how we treat our women. This conversation must continue, in drawing rooms, in chat rooms, on the street. We owe it to the 23-year-old trying to get back home one winter night. We owe it to every woman. We owe it to ourselves.

The views expressed by the author are personal


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