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There's No Easy Answer to Sexual Violence in India

Over the past two months, a spate of sexual violence in India -- including the brutal rape and murders of teen cousins in rural Uttar Pradesh -- has raised questions about the country's ability to handle what some commentators call an epidemic.

India's sexual violence is unique in some ways, but in others, it reflects the global crisis of violence against women, particularly girls. More than a third of women worldwide have suffered some form of gender violence. It's even reached almost epidemic proportions in the U.S. military, according to recent reports. Moreover, gender and sexual violence -- rape, forced child marriage, kidnapping, prostitution and child trafficking, physical abuse, and even murder -- is so broad in definition that there isn't a one-stop policy solution to combat it.

The grisly nature of the recent attacks on women, coupled with the high-profile incidents of gang rape against (and often ensuing murder of) women over the last several years, has led international rights groups and even a group of U.S. senators, led by Barbara Boxer, to push the newly elected Indian government to act swiftly to mete out justice. But their condemnations seem to overlook the complexity of sexual violence in India -- or anywhere, for that matter -- and the decentralized manner in which India's justice system works. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already pledged to act on addressing the issue (despite dealing with a rape scandal involving one of his cabinet ministers), reactive legislation won't address the roots of the problem.

Before delving into the issue more, it should be noted that part of the reason why sexual violence in India is more in the headlines is due to the rise of reported rapes (as opposed to silence of rape victims and their families, as well as local authorities) and the 24-hour news cycle aided by social media. But sexual violence in India is due to many factors, including but not limited to years of institutional apathy towards gender equality despite job, education, and political quotas for women; Victorian-era sexual repression; rapid globalization and even more rapid urbanization; India's lack of social infrastructure; and the inability of policy makers and social leaders to address the roots of the problem.

For starters, India's law enforcement apparatus -- straddled with Victorian-era bureaucratic norms, teeming with corruption, and chronically understaffed (while being mostly male) -- is often more of an encumbrance to justice in major cities, but in rural villages, police and magistrates often act as the unofficial vassals of local leaders. Other times, village leaders often use rape as a punishment for women who are seen as disobedient. Just over a week ago, a 14-year-old girl in Jharkand was raped on the orders of a village head as retaliation for a reported sexual assault by her brother. This is why young men accused of rape (and worse) can usually duck justice if they have the right connections through family, tribal, or caste ties.

Before casting the blame solely on India's law enforcement capacity, it's important to note that its inefficiency was at least partially inherited from the colonial era, when British authorities -- wary of giving too much autonomy to locals, but savvy enough to recognize the importance of town/village political dynamics -- gave limited authority to magistrates and other town officials.

But the colonial era also left another lasting mark: the failure of Indians to acknowledge sex or sexuality. The Victorian prudishness that become a defining feature for Indian society often manifested itself in punitive measures, whether it was the upholding of an 1860 law criminalizing homosexuality or the acceptance by Indians of every religious belief not to talk about sex. Though sex was more openly acknowledged as a part of daily life (and rape was more forcibly condemned such as in the Manusmriti), during the colonial period it became a taboo. Women's rights were not even considered serious points of discussion, even as numerous state level governments espoused lip service to women's equality. The failure of the Indian education system to provide adequate sex education re-affirms the idea that both patriarchy and male privilege were too woven tightly into Indian society. Sexual repression was also enshrined in parochial education, as generations of Indians who sent their children to Catholic schools (or Islamic madrassas) weren't taught anything about sex - except to not talk about it. Thanks to conservative Hindu interpretations of social norms, many middle and upper-middle class Hindus have become conservative in dealing with sex and gender equality, despite there being no scriptural basis for such prudishness. This isn't to say that religion is to blame for the conditioning of gender roles, but the silence of religious centers of learning and religious leaders (across all faiths) themselves when it came to discussing sex proved to be an abetting force in shaping Indian attitudes about sex.

In turn, those attitudes can sometimes lead to a blame-the-victim mentality that cuts across economic, educational, and social lines. Women's increased role in the workforce, and the increasing number of those getting college educations, is also making them more visible in society. While many Indian politicians have gotten in trouble for their tone-deafness and outright offensiveness when it comes to handling violence against women, they are merely the public faces and voices of widespread insensitivity and antagonism towards gender equality. It should be noted, however, that these officials, steeped in their own patriarchy (despite Indira Gandhi's prime ministership for over a decade, Pratibha Patil's presidency in the 2000s, and Sonia Gandhi's current leadership of the Indian National Congress), are becoming less relevant in discourses as Indian women are becoming more involved in politics at the local and national level.

Another major issue is that India's embrace of globalization has created more devastating consequences than just economic inequality. It has institutionalized hyper-rapid urbanization, creating an influx of (mostly) male workers from small villages who migrate to the big cities for work. The difference in upbringing between Indian villages and Indian cities, while also partially dependent upon economics, is seemingly a world apart. Migration between those two worlds, however, is now the norm. In that process, India's social infrastructure is woefully overmatched, as exhibited by the cases of HIV/AIDS skyrocketing in rural areas due to the migration of married men between their villages and the cities, where they often pay HIV-infected sex workers for sex.

While the situation in India appears to be dire, there are two major ways policymakers, gender equality advocates, and religious leaders can at least help to address the tide of sexual violence. For example, some womens' groups have even taken matters into their own hands.The first is actually one that doesn't directly involve acknowledging sexual violence: upgrading the country's infrastructure. Too many parts of the country still lack access to sanitation, which, as some commentators note, is a major public safety issue, as sadly exemplified in the Uttar Pradesh Badaun rapes. Building toilets, ensuring that roads are well-lit 24 hours a day, and helping to provide safe passage for young people to schools are both as much women's rights issues as they are national development priorities. Thus far, India's new central government seems to be placing an emphasis on infrastructure development.

Working to end India's sexual illiteracy might be trickier, because it involves acknowledging that India's sexual denialism is deeply rooted into its social fabric, in part due to norms passed down from the colonial period. Perhaps introducing sexual education in schools -- along with working to cultivate buy-in from conservative parents and religious leaders -- can help to develop a new norm for Indian social interactions predicated upon the premises of equality and respect. Contrary to the edicts of some religious leaders, culturally sensitive (and religiously aware) sexual education is possible. Moreover, systematizing sensitivity towards sexual violence to all law enforcement officials might go a long way in addressing the problems of indifference and animosity towards victims of sexual violence.

Hindu leaders have already begun highlighting the importance of women's equality as inherently part of the religion, specifically through mention of Shaktism (the worship of female divinity) and the central role women have played in both Hindu scriptures and practice as equals to their male counterparts. And while Hinduism and the other Dharmic traditions have been traditionally more sex positive than their Abrahamic counterparts, there's no reason why Christian and Muslim religious leaders shouldn't also be open to discussing the importance of sex education, considering that rape violates their religious tenets. An interfaith movement promoting gender rights could become an effective way of cutting across cultural lines while explaining to certain religious groups why awareness about sex and sexual violence is the morally right thing to do. Such efforts can also help to undercut the influence of local village leaders who promote sexual violence. It could also help gender rights leaders work more closely with faith leaders to constructively prevent sexual violence.

As I mentioned before, there's no easy answer to fighting and ending sexual violence in India. While these proposed solutions may put only a dent in India's overall challenges in combating sexual violence, they can at least help to address a major hurdle that has thus far stalled any constructive measures: acknowledging that a problem exists. The new government acknowledged the seriousness of the issue, and Indian womens' groups have been at the forefront pushing for concrete policy solutions. One can only hope that such an acknowledgment helps expedite both a collective response and proactive measures to ensure that girls and women throughout India are treated as equals, and don't have to live with the fear of being victims of sexual violence or institutional indifference.

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