Sand-sculpture at Alleppey, Kerala, India. Photo: Jennifer Allsopp
Let us talk about Ram Singh, the chief rapist accused in the case of Damini, (the name given to the 23 year-old woman who was gang-raped and later died ) who told his rape colleagues, as they cleaned the bus, “not to worry, nothing will happen”.
Ram Singh and his cohort have now been formally charged with abduction, gang-rape and murder, but he could so easily have been right. After all, the conviction rate for rape cases in India between 2001 and 2010, was 26 percent. And in Delhi, only one in four culprits were punished.
In the case of Muslim and Dalit women the rate of conviction is almost nil. Three Dalit women are raped daily in some part of our country. When Bhanwari Devi was raped in a Rajasthan village, the Judge asked, “How can a Dalit woman be raped?” Most women say they wouldn’t even think of telling the police about an attack for fear the cops would ignore them or worse blame them and abuse them.
This culture of impunity certainly emboldened Ram Singh, but the more important question is what motivated him? Were Ram Singh and his cohort simply claiming a masculinity as promoted by their role models in politics, business and the media?
Political leaders of all hues, in their personal lives, have commodified women both inside and outside the home. The homes of most male political leaders in India - upper or lower caste - have begun to reflect the gender life styles of Ekta Kapoor serials on TV, with women handing over all decisions, including reproductive decisions, to their husbands and religions, in ‘defence of their culture.’
Sand-sculpture in Alleppey, Kerala, India. Photo: Jennifer Allsopp
Outside the home, Bharatiya Janta Party Members in the state of Karnataka are caught watching pornography on their iPads in the Legislative Assembly. Janata Dal Leaders have paid women to perform ‘item’ numbers in mass functions, and former Prime Minister P. V Narsimha Rao writes in his biography, The Insider, how Congress leaders bought women for sex while attending Congress Working Committee sessions.
Business leaders are seen with paid escorts, hosting rave parties, consuming porn, and saving their sons from the consequences of molesting girls. In the culture of “success” that Ram Singh witnesses in the media everyday, he sees classified advertisement in newspapers selling female escorts, businessmen zipping around in fast cars with girls draped on their arms staring out with vacant eyes, and at least one private airline owner using the ‘casting couch’ to hire sixty airhostesses for four planes.
While Ram Singh cannot afford fast cars and the accompanying female escorts, he can certainly buy porn CDs. India has become the third largest user of pornography in the world. Blue movies and CDs are available at any video parlour. For many twelve year olds the first sexual encounter is a pop up character on a TV screen, being penetrated in every part of her body, with tears streaming down her face, and asking for more.
I would be curious to know if Ram Singh was socialized into believing that sex was connected to violence through countless hours of watching porn. I wonder if the police will ask this question during their investigation? Or have they normalized the degradation of women to the extent that they will not explore the root causes of the rape?.
In the course of my work with Apne Aap Women Worldwide I have seen the steady creeping of a rape culture into the fabric of India. We work to organize women in prostitution to resist their own and their daughter’s rape. We have been campaigning to change the anti-trafficking law in order to punish customers and pimps. But the biggest challenge we face is the normalization of the rape of poor women in our culture. Their prostitution is considered inevitable and the men who buy them are considered normal. Politicians, senior police officials, heads of foundations and even policy makers have told me: “Men will be men,” or “Girls from good families will be raped, if prostitutes don’t exist”.
These comments perpetuate a notion of masculinity in which men have unbridled sexual desire, will rape women if they are not obtainable otherwise, and that poor women should be sexually available to protect middle-class women!
This is how rape cultures are created. Those in positions of power who serve as role models for the rest of society do not challenge prevalent norms, attitudes and practices that trivialize, normalize, and even condone rape. Instead, they perpetuate the inevitability of inequality between men and women.
Incidents of rape have gone up by 873 % percent since India gained Independence. Budget allocations to successive Ministries of Women and Child have been reduced. Someone of Cabinet rank has hardly ever represented the Ministry, and some of the weakest and most inarticulate individuals - such as Krishna Tirath - have been appointed as Ministers of State. Debates to ensure equal power sharing between the sexes through the Women’s Reservation Bill have gone nowhere.
People are now asking for fast track courts for speedy justice, the death penalty, the immediate passage of the Sexual Harassment in the Workplace Bill, and chemical castration - of not just the perpetrators, but all rapists. My question is who and how many people will we castrate? And will it reverse the rape culture based on sex inequality in India? Won’t castration or death penalty let those off the hook who are creating this culture? When can we force the government to increase budget allocations for women and girls, have better leaders representing the Women and Child Ministry, and introduce power sharing for women at all levels of policy making?
An essential part of efforts to create a contemporary and democratic society in which full gender equality is the norm, is to recognize the right to equal participation of women and men, girls and boys, in all areas of society. Any society that claims to defend principles of legal, political, economic, and social equality for women and girls must reject the idea that women and children, mostly girls, are commodities inside or outside the home, upper or lower class or caste.
We need to make efforts to create a society where women and girls can live lives free of all forms of male violence. In combination with public education, awareness-raising campaigns, and victim support, the law and other legislation such as police and judicial reforms, needs to establish a zero tolerance policy for sexual exploitation and violence against women. The law needs to recognize that without men’s demand for, and use of, women and girls for sexual exploitation, the rape culture would not be able to flourish and expand. For example, a good response would be to require every registered business, which requires a license to operate, to subject all employees to a sensitisation on zero tolerance of sexual violence in and out of the work place. License renewal could be made dependent on the business submitting certificates to show that their employees have undergone the training.
On a structural level, India needs to recognize that to succeed in the campaign against sexual exploitation, the political, social, and economic conditions under which women and girls live must be ameliorated by introducing development measures for poverty reduction, education, sustainable development, and social programs focusing specifically on women.
The work to end rape requires a broad perspective, and a will to act in a wide range of policy areas. It also requires the involvement and collaboration of a broad variety of public and private actors, besides an overhaul of measures to combat all sexual violence within the justice system and, more important, measures that concern protection of and assistance to victims need to be developed and implemented. As Naila Kabeeer rightly says in her article on openDemocracy 50.50 “Making zero tolerance on violence against women a central platform in post-MDG agenda would have, at the very least, a powerful symbolic impact”.
Like many others, we have sent our recommendations to the Justice Verma Commission which has been set up by the Union Government after the huge public outcry. We wait and watch, and hopefully, this time round, some concrete legislative changes will happen that will in some measure change the lot of the woman in free and democratic India.