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Be Part of the Solution

I was having a conversation with my neighbour in the park this morning. I live in a gated community in Gurgaon. My neighbour is an educationist. She is angry, she tells me – rapes are increasing. Another girl has been gang raped. And she is dead. Killed by her rapists. Even her brother could not save her. Other women and men from the building join us. All are angry. All want to do something about it. 

My “NGO” brain is whirring. I think of all the possible things we can do together. As I prepare to launch into a passionate account of how they can involve themselves (the youth-led Kadam Badate Chalo initiative in PRIA is just one programme they can associate with), I ask, almost as an afterthought – what are you angriest about?

The responses range from: “I am angry about the rape.” “I am angry at how the rape happened.” “Our daughters are not safe to go out alone and now even I can’t think of wandering around after dark.”

Who is to blame I ask?

The responses are quick. Poverty and lack of education. The government. You NGOs are not doing your jobs properly. Men.

“Men?” I ask. “All men? Ahh… its biological, you think?”

But then, please explain why we believe our daughters are safer when they are “protected” by their brothers, or other men. The rape we are talking about, the girl was with her brother wasn’t she? Last month, a teenage girl was raped by her father. Hmm…

The responses change. “We have to install CCTV cameras and increase security in our building and the approach road.” “Screen all the delivery boys and driver ‘types’.” “We can’t trust even the guards.”

“Err… what about the male residents in the building?” I ask. “Is rape then to do with economic status? Or class?”

Echoing the many profound statements made by various leaders, they sigh  – “We have got to make sure our daughters are safe.” “They should be home at dusk and never be alone when outside.” After all, men are lurking anywhere aren’t they?

So is the problem then something that is connected to the time of day? Or the place? Both? Oh, okay then, what if we locked up all the men and boys inside their homes and let the women and girls roam free on the roads  – will all the heinous crimes of sexual violence against girls and women end then? If I remember correctly, 118,866 cases of domestic violence were reported in India in 2013.

In a youth led assessment under PRIA’s Kadam Badate Chalo programme conducted with 77 women in Sonipat this year, 73 per cent of women who were interviewed had experienced physical violence in the form of slapping as an everyday occurrence in their homes and 65 per cent reported forceful sexual intercourse and rape by their husbands. So… women are not safe even inside their homes. Nearly all women interviewed believed that a woman deserves to be beaten if she is disobedient to her husband, if she cannot complete her household chores, or if she fails to look after her children. Nearly two-thirds of Indian men in a survey conducted by ICRW believe that women should tolerate violence in order to keep the family together, and women sometimes deserve to be beaten.

This is not all – as the number of girls going out of the house (to study, to work, or even just to spend time with friends) increases, the sexual violence and harassment they face in the workplace, on roads, in schools and colleges, at bus stops, in malls, is becoming an everyday phenomenon. Sangeetha Sharma, a young lawyer practicing in Hyderabad, committed suicide in 2000 after facing sexual harassment by three colleagues. Global data shows that every year 60 million girls are sexually assaulted at, or on their way to, school. A 17-year-old school girl in Sohna, Gurgaon stopped going to school fearing sexual harassment. Across 22 schools in Sonipat, in a survey conducted by youth under PRIA’s Kadam Badate Chalo programme, 95 per cent of girls interviewed shared that they have stopped drinking water and going to the toilets during school hours to avoid being sexually harassed by fellow male students.  Institutions are merely microcosms of society and mirror the existing realities of the outside world.

Women’s dress, behaviour, what they eat (chow mein!) and mobile phones are all reasons for “inviting harassment”. As politician Omar Abdullah tweeted, “Atrocities against women existed even before the invention of mobile phone.” It also exists in remote locations, where mobile technology and smartphones, shopping malls and restaurants are not so ubiquitous.

Freedom from the threat of sexual harassment and sexual assault is something that most of us have a hard time imagining because violence is such a deep rooted part of our cultures. It is woven so intricately into the fabric of our lives that those of us who are victims of such harassment and violence feel that they are at fault. And many of those who perpetrate violence feel justified by strong societal messages that say rape, sexual harassment, child abuse and other forms of gender-based violence are acceptable.

I know all of you are angry too about the crimes against women. So I would like to ask you the same questions I asked the group:
1. What are you most angry about?
2. Who is to be blamed? 
3. What shall we do about it?

Let us all be part of the solution.

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