By Persis Khambatta and Guruamrit Khalsa
The violent attack on a young woman in New Delhi last December, and the nationwide protests that followed, were yet another indication that India’s youth are increasingly fed up. This case, piled upon countless other commonplace incidents of sexual violence directed at women and children throughout the country, sparked public outcry on a level almost unimaginable until recently.
In the days following the attack, protests erupted all over the capital, becoming extensive enough to be dubbed part of ‘India’s Arab Spring’. They demanded better security for female commuters, more accountability from government officials and punishment of perpetrators from the courts.
Compounding legislative and judicial weakness in this area is India’s lack of police capacity. As of 2010, India only maintained 129 police officers per 100,000 people. The global average is approximately 350 officers. Furthermore, as of 2011 only 5 percent of India’s police officers were female, undoubtedly leading to a dearth of female officers available to file reports or respond to rape cases.
The Indian government has since approved a new package of laws designed to prevent sexual violence against women. For the first time, the death penalty can be applied to cases where the act of sexual assault causes death. Also included are laws making trafficking, stalking, acid attacks and voyeurism criminal offenses. They take effect immediately, and must be ratified by parliament within six months. Beyond the new laws and increased police capacity, what’s needed is a sustained campaign in order to change how women and children are viewed by society at large (more on that below).
Advocacy groups have criticized the new legislation, calling it “piecemeal and fragmented.” The new measures fail to include some of the recommendations of the J.S. Verma Committee, most notably the issues of marital rape and military personnel and parliamentarians who commit sexual assaults. A number of India’s parliamentarians are currently accused of criminal activity, including rapes – Mr. PJ Kurien, Deputy Chairman of the Rajya Sabha, is accused of taking part in a gang rape incident in 1996. On the whole, the stringent new laws against rape are a step in the right direction, but even more critical is their implementation.
Unfortunately, violent acts against women and children in India are nothing new. The increasing presence of women in the workforce, in social settings and on public transportation in urban areas, has pushed the issue into a more public domain.
Despite more women in the formal workforce, the rate of economic participation and entrepreneurship among women in India still remains among the lowest in the world – but this is changing as rates of education rise. The growing prevalence of women in the workforce is likely to be a source of continuing friction as more conservative sections of society adjust to rapid change. It is just one of many tensions that are likely to spring up as part of the larger rise of India’s middle class.
Laws are only one means of combating the violence that India’s women and children face on a daily basis. To put it bluntly, men will continue to act in violent ways towards women and children as long as they don’t think it is a crime. Sensitization at a younger age is needed – it cannot only be up to women to defend themselves, or to the law to punish perpetrators after crimes have been committed.
The problem requires a stronger element of education, of sensitization and of a nationwide campaign to help nudge those along – it entails a larger paradigm shift, with India’s leading voices up front. Bollywood actors and entertainers have spoken out, but other community leaders could add even more heft to the idea that the burden is also on society at large to change how women are perceived.
Unless the trusted voices of India’s fathers, mothers, mentors and teachers, as well as leading personalities counteract the violence with education and guidance, nothing will change, and India’s reputation as one of the world’s most dangerous places for women will remain intact.
Persis Khambatta is a Fellow with the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at CSIS.