By Stella Paul
It has been more than two months since the December 16 gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman in New Delhi. Since then well over a million people -- men and women, young and old -- have taken to the streets to condemn the rape and demand justice.
They have marched in silence, holding placards with messages like "Death to the Rapists," "Save Our Women," and "End Rape Now." The protests have taken place in almost every city: Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore, and Kolkata. Even small towns like Lucknow, Ahmedabad, and Pune have been a part of the action. In my own city of Hyderabad in the south of India, women have for the very first time taken part in a midnight march to claim their rights to be out on the street at any time. In Bangalore, men marched on the streets wearing skirts -- their way of showing that a woman's choice of clothing does not cause a man to rape.
Every day, I see photos of protest marches on my Facebook feed, and Twitter users have generated well over a millions tweets with hashtags like "delhigangrape" and "braveheart" -- the name the media gave to the anonymous rape victim.
As yet another Indian woman who has experienced molestation and sexual harassment early in her life, I have found these developments both sad and electrifying. Sad because a woman was tortured and murdered, but also sad because this was probably the 5,000th time I heard of a woman in India being raped. Statistics from the National Crime Record Bureau of India show that since 1953 there has been an 873 percent rise of rape cases in India. In 2012 alone, we have seen horrific rape cases involving four-year-old baby girls and 80-year-old women. But never, ever have I seen a group of even 100 people come together to protest these acts.
Nor have I ever seen citizens from all walks of life voice their opinions on issues related to women, especially issues related to women's safety or dignity. For that matter, I have never seen Indian media dedicate hours of airtime to cover anti-rape rallies or broadcast interviews of people who advocate against gender-based violence. Rape or sexual harassment has always been seen by Indian media as a 'soft' issue, and the only times the media has highlighted a rape or molestation is when the accused is a high-profile politician or celebrity.
As I watch television and read newspapers where most of the headlines are about violence and women in India, I feel as though I am watching a billion people wake from a deep slumber. It's as though a silent, voiceless India has suddenly found its voice. We are doing what we should have done long ago: speaking out against the atrocities women face every day.
And yet, I strongly believe that something is missing from the conversation. It is the courage and willingness to own responsibility for the situation we find ourselves in. A hundred reasons for rape and sexual violence have been pointed out, but we have yet to hear someone come out and say the words that could set the ball of change rolling: "We take responsibility for this mess."
The unwillingness to own responsibility begins right at the top. Every time a rape or a case of sexual violence against women has come into the open, law makers, politicians, and even religious leaders have held women responsible, blaming them for everything from 'provoking men to rape' to 'failing to beg for mercy.'
Here's an example: Right after the Delhi gang rape happened, Neeraj Kumar, the Commissioner of Police in New Delhi, gave an interview to a local TV channel where he blamed society at large for the increasing number of rapes. According to the Police Commissioner, over 70 percent of rapes in India happen at home and therefore, it is wrong for citizens to blame the police.
Coming from the head of the police department of a city that is often called the 'Rape Capital of India,' this statement is not only audacious, but also extremely irresponsible. It reflects a man's unwillingness to accept his own failure to do his job, which is to provide basic security to women.
Even Abhijeet Mukherjee, a parliamentarian and the son of the President of India, went on record mocking all the women who protested the gang rape, calling them 'painted and dented ladies.' Though he later withdrew his statement following a public outrage, Congress (I), the political party that he represents, maintained a stoic silence on the issue, not bothering to comment, let alone criticize the MP. The party also kept quiet when another one of its senior party leaders in Hyderabad said that women must not be out on the street after midnight if they want to be safe.
If India wants to win the war against sexual violence, it will be imperative for those in the power to stop making statements that are irresponsible and derogatory. But for that to happen, it is important that political parties take responsibility when one of their members -- irrespective of rank -- dishonors women. They must take punitive action against him.
Unless this is done, the character assassination of women will continue to happen. In India, less than 205 women are active participants in politics -- a fact that has put the country in 105th position in the world. This is unlikely to improve much unless the political parties care to become gender-sensitive.
Police must own responsibility as well. The record of Indian police is appalling when it comes to acts against gender-based violence. They refuse to register cases against rapists; they delay arrests allowing defendants to escape; and they fail to perform proper investigations. The proof of the utter failure of our police departments lies in the fact that of the 5,337 rape cases in the last decade, in 3,860 cases, the culprits were either acquitted or discharged by courts for lack of 'proper' evidence.
In all likelihood, this sordid scenario will not change until the police force gets truly serious, owns responsibility for its failure, and plugs the holes that exist within its system, including its causal attitude toward rape. According to a recent study by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India, every 40 minutes a girl or woman is raped in India. Now, considering that India is neither a failed state nor in a war, these statistics indicate that the whole society has collectively failed to create a safe environment for its women to live in.
The reasons are not hard to guess: Every time a girl is raped or sexually violated, instead of feeling like a victim, she feels like the one who has committed a crime herself. Because, we, the people of India, see rape as a moral fall out. We consider a rape victim as someone who has become 'unholy' and has brought disgrace to herself and to those around her. We, therefore, declare her a fallen woman and stigmatize her forever.
This is why rape victims do not speak against their ordeal as often as they should. If this continues to happen, rapes will remain common and women will continue to suffer in silence -- even if the culprits of the Delhi gang rape are punished.
Finally, we must also take responsibility for not demanding a zero-impunity policy against rape and sexual violence. As common citizens, we have the right to justice. If we don't claim that right now, if we stay quiet every time a rapist or a molester walks free, we are not only failing to stand up for ourselves, but also continuing to endanger women.
Brutal and ghastly though it was, the gang rape of Delhi has given us a chance to stop the barbarism that has gone on for so long in India. This is our moment of reckoning: Not only do we have a great deal of public awareness on violence against women, but we also have the attention of the entire global community. Millions of people across the world have heard of the gang rape and are waiting to see what efforts we make to end rape overall.
We can seize this opportunity to reform our laws, our behavior, and above all our hearts and minds. We can seize this opportunity to root out gender-based violence from our society. And in doing so, we'll be sending a message to those who are fighting the same battle in other regions that it is indeed possible to transform a dangerous society into a safe and livable place for all women, for generations to come.
Or, we can talk in rhetoric, dodge our responsibility, blame each other, and go down in history as a nation that had an opportunity to free itself of sexual violence but didn't care enough to grab it.