The tipping point in India for public outrage over violence against women could have been any attack on any woman. But it has centred on the horrifying rape of a 23-year-old Delhi medical student on a public bus. She and her male companion were beaten with a metal bar and she was then gang-raped by six men, including the driver, for more than an hour. The Dec. 16 attack was New Delhi’s 636th this year.
Hundreds of ordinary citizens have taken to the streets, furious at the state’s inability to make India a safer and more equitable country for women. The government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh failed to respond quickly or forcefully enough and is now in the unenviable position of trying to contain the public’s fury by promising to bring the perpetrators to swift justice, and to make police more responsive to crimes against women.
But if authorities in India, one of the world’s great democracies and a key emerging economy, really want to tackle the problem, they should work harder to change deeply ingrained cultural biases that begin at birth -- or before. It is an embarrassment that selective abortion of girl babies is still so prevalant, and that India is ranked 105 of 135 countries on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report. Such disparity will stand in the way of long-term progress. “The persistent health, education and economic participation gaps for women will be detrimental to India’s growth,” the 2012 report notes.
Law enforcement and political leaders must lead campaigns to promote gender equality, and that means not tolerating age-old clichés that women are the weaker sex, and must dress conservatively and not go out past sundown to avoid being victimized. That is not good enough for any nation, much less for a BRIC nation with global leadership aspirations.
The government’s new measures, such as banning buses with tinted windows and curtains and gender training for police officers in the capital, are welcome. But more leadership is clearly required to challenge a patriarchal culture.
With women’s growing economic clout, they are less likely to stay silent about violence. They expect authorities to take responsibility for keeping the streets, public spaces and public transport safe. They expect equal rights. And that is something that benefits everyone in society.