For the last year, since four Delhi men gang-raped and murdered a college co-ed on a bus, India has been roiled by controversies over rape.
Two weeks ago, two girls, cousins 12 and 14 years old were found hanging after being raped in Uttar Pradesh. Their assailants had waited for them when they went out at night to relieve themselves. Why, you might ask, do girls have to relieve themselves outdoors in the thick of night? The answer is simple: There are no toilets at home -- believe it or not!
But the story gets worse. Parents' complaints about the killings of the 12-year-old and 14-year-old cousins to the police department were rebuffed. Why? Because the assailants belonged to the same caste as the police officers and thus were protected by their brethren. This incident highlights the noxious intersection of caste, class and a propensity towards vicious violence against women in India. (I know similar stories from neighboring Pakistan and Afghanistan -- violence against women is a sub-continent wide epidemic, with which every country and religious group is infected.)
The political leaders of Uttar Pradesh, where the two cousins aged 12 and 14 were raped and hanged last week, have faced criticism for failing to visit the scene and for accusing the media of hyping the story. A regional politician from Modi's own Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), said that the crime of rape can only be considered to have been committed if it is reported to the police. "This (rape) is a social crime which depends on men and women. Sometimes it's right, sometimes it's wrong," said Babulal Gaur, the home minister responsible for law and order in the BJP-run neighboring state of Madhya Pradesh. "Until there's a complaint, nothing can happen," he told reporters.
India's male politicians hang together regardless of party. Gaur went on to support Mulayam Singh Yadav, head of the regional Samajwadi party that runs Uttar Pradesh and the BJP's political opponent in the state. He defended the fact that in the recent election, Mulayam, a champion of the "bad boys" criticizes the death penalty for gang rape, saying: "Boys commit mistakes: will they be hanged for rape?"
While the stories vary slightly, the bottom line is the same: Women are targets. Why? Caste, class and poverty among women rob them of their rights and deprive them of protection. Ms. Amana Fontanellla-Khan, author of the Pink Sari Revolution, points affirmatively to the caste bias in the case of the two young teenagers who were raped and killed.
She highlights the prolific discrimination against Dalit women (formerly referred to as the untouchables) and who were routinely raped by upper-caste landowners. This is supported by 2007 statistics for Uttar Pradesh which shows that 90 percent of rape victims in 2007 were Dalit women. Here too, there is a dual treatment of rape: Attacks on Western tourists draw attention, "rapes of lower-caste women fail to provoke an outcry." Sexual violence arises, Ms. Khan explains, "from a feudal sense of entitlement among some upper caste men and illustrates this with a saying: "You have not really experienced the land until you have experienced the Dalit woman."
As if the story of the rape and hanging of two teenagers was not enough, a 19-year-old woman was also raped and again in the state of Uttar Pradesh in the same two-week period. She, too, was hung from a tree with her scarf.
What can we do to create a paradigm shift on the ground in India so women are more protected and less at risk? What's the solution? Well, it begins with a toilet, really!
Julie McCarthy of NPR reports:
"The deaths could conceivably have been averted if the girls had access to a toilet at home. Lacking one, on the night they were killed, the two girl cousins 12 and 14 years old did what hundreds of millions of women do across India: under the cloak of darkness between sunset and sunrise, they set out for an open field to relieve themselves."
Julie is right-on; this is the norm.
But there is hope for this first step for women: A social entrepreneur, Bindeshwar Patak, known as the "toilet guru," has designed a $250 low-maintenance toilet with two pits. He has already transformed the village of Hir Mathala in Haryana, where 144 households have been equipped with the new toilet. Women sing his praises even as his toilet has become a vital tool of social change which makes a critical difference.
(Invest in Muslim Women is moving forward with a pioneering project in Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, to create pay toilets for women in the urban center to enable them to have safe sanitary facilities near their workplaces.)
While a heightened awareness around rape and the need for vigilance and legislation comes to the forefront, too many politicians dither. While new PM Narendra Modi during his campaign called for "toilets not temples," he has yet to comment on the UP murders. Meanwhile Akhilesh Sing Yadav, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh (and the son of Samajwadi leader Mulayam Singh Yadav) assured business leaders at a conference in New Delhi last week that "his state was a safe destination for investment." Really?
Will Indian men be chauvinists championing their male brethren forever? My view is that they probably will -- until women get a larger, meaningful role in running our societies at all levels. It is critical to begin with toilets, and move on to education, politics and the law. But this will all be enabled by economic empowerment -- its jobs that given women a voice.
Meanwhile, we can all do something. The social action group Avaaz has launched a global campaign to get 2 million signatures to ask Prime Minister Modi to sign the ground-breaking Womanifesto, a common-sense plan for urgently needed reforms to stop the rape epidemic. It covers law, policing, medical and psychological support, and crucially -- public education.
Please take a minute to sign the attached petition for women's rights in India -and everywhere -- with Avaaz.org.
Shahnaz Chinoy Taplin, board president of Invest in Muslim Women, a non-profit project of the Global Fund for Women. Invest in Muslim Women focuses on the economic empowerment of Muslim women, justice and peace.