The gangrape of a photojournalist in Mumbai has set off a chain of outrage and protest. Two questions are uppermost in people's minds. First, has nothing changed since the horrific incident in Delhi of December 16 last year? And, secondly, what has happened to Mumbai, hitherto considered a 'safe' city for women?
The answers to both questions are complex. December 16 and the protests that followed were a seminal moment for the gender justice movement in India. It brought front and centre an issue that had receded to the inside pages of newspapers from the heady beginnings of women's movements in the 80s. It threw off the cloak of shame around rape - reported rape cases in Delhi have risen since then as have the registration of first infomation reports (FIRs). It's created a law with sharper teeth. Finally, it brought a realisation to people that taking to the streets with reason can bear fruit. But with 24,000 reported rapes a year (activists say the actual number could far exceed this), to expect to turn the tide of this battle in a matter of months is shortsighted.
Rape is endemic, deep and widespread in Indian society, occurring both outside and inside the home. Still, it is fair to ask if, in the light of the public uprising after the horror of December 16, anything has really changed where it matters - on the ground? Let's examine the Mumbai gangrape as a case in point. The survivor was out on work at 6pm.
Do we ask women to return home by then? No. Can we blame the police in this instance? No, she was in a secluded spot. In any case, with 50000 police persons for a city of 19 million makes it evident that the police cannot be everywhere. (Besides, do women want a police person shadowing their movements? I venture the answer would be in the negative). Can we blame the public for turning a blind eye to the crime? In this case, no, again. There was no one around. Can we point a finger at the survivor saying she should not have ventured out alone? No. She had a (male) colleague with her. So what now?
It has been my case for the last ten years that the only way we can reduce violence against women is to attack the problem at its base and from all sides. Attack it in schools from primary school upwards. We have to educate our boys, we have to reach out to their parents, their neighbourhoods, their communities. We need sustained gender sensitisation workshops for teachers, parents and school administrators. Gender equality as a subject must be made a compulsory part of the school curriculum. Innovative events, creative activities, projects designed for both children and parents around the issue must be executed month after month all year round.
Children must be motivated to go out into the community to learn more about attitudes towards women. All of this backed by a strong, unceasing multi media campaign that evolves but never stops, over the next two decades. There are no quick solutions to a problem emanating out of entrenched patriarchy and misogyny that are fuelled by a culture of impunity. Lastly a strong anti-rape law is as important as speedy and committed police, legal and judicial action.
Now for the second question that is being ceaselessly debated on all television channels - has Mumbai become unsafe for women? Undoubtedly so. But has this happened overnight or has it been creeping up on us over the last few years? The incident where Keenan Santos and Reuben Fernandes were killed because they stood up against their female friends being harassed outside a restaurant in Amboli, the acid attack on the girl on the platform at Bandra station, the Spanish woman raped in her home in Bandra, the 19-year-old girl gangraped in Ulhasnagar, indicate a trend that has been sending out warning signals over and over again.
In a 2011-12, the gender rights NGO, Akshara, conducted a study in partnership with Hindustan Times, as part of this newspaper's award-winning campaign, 'Make Mumbai Safer for Women'. The survey found that amongst 4200 women in Mumbai, 95% of the respondents said they had experienced street sexual harassment, and 46% said they had suffered molestation in public buses. While all this should have prepared the city for an escalation of crimes against women, the gangrape of August 22 still leaves us searching for answers. As stated earlier in this piece there was really not much anyone could do at that moment.
Violence against women has to be eradicated through intelligently devised, sensitive, intensive work at the school, community and city/district level to change attitudes, all of it backed by strong deterrents in the form of swift, hard punishment through our police and judicial system. That is the way forward. That is the only way forward.
(Rahul Bose, well-known actor and activist, has campaigned for over a decade on issues of gender and social justice)