What would you do if you woke up in the morning and realised your daughters were missing, only then to find them hanging dead from a tree after being brutally gang-raped?
What would you do if the very people whom you seek for help mock your daughters, telling you that they got what they deserved?
What would you do if a minister, sitting in the confines of a plush office, calls rape a social crime – and has the gumption to say that it is sometimes right, and sometimes wrong?
Would you blow your fuse? Would you feel hurt? Would you question your will to live?
This was in fact a reality for a father of one of the girls in Badaun, a village a few miles shy of the capital city of India. When his daughter, and another girl – the two of them aged just 14 and 15, went missing, he encountered the police and literally fell on his knees, begging for assistance with finding them. Their response? They laughed at him, told him to go home and did nothing to find his daughter. It took international attention and unparalleled outrage for them to wake up and take action, culminating in the arrest of five men and the dismissal of both the police officers. Compounding this outrage is the insensitivity of a number of media outlets, which have brazenly shared images of the two girls hanging from the tree. We cannot help but ask: whatever happened to dignity and privacy?
The response to rape, be it legislative or policy or activism-oriented , has been largely framed around a band-aid solution. Every instance of “action” has simply been a superficial tool with which to address simmering anger; once the furore dies down, we’re all back to leading our lives as though nothing happened. Ironically, we ask about the behaviour of authorities when a similar incident happens again, ignoring the fact that we were fast asleep ourselves. Here’s what we’re losing touch with: the lack of change at the grass-roots level.
Let’s start at the top. This story I just relayed to you is not one in isolation, and more importantly, is not new. Rape and sexual violence in India is rampant, and stems from the prevailing undercurrent of sexism and a mindset that perceives women as nothing more than cattle. What we need to start with is to effect change at the local level – by shifting mindsets and perpetuating the idea that women are not threats, but are important for society. We need to institutionalize the belief that women are not to be treated this way, and that they are not to be perceived as anything less than human beings with an equal status as men.
The brazen disregard of the status of women relegates them to the position of second class citizens. This sets in process a sort of a chain reaction, as women find themselves forced to suffer in silence without access to healthcare, education and justice, simply because there is no security for them. Girls can’t go to school because the route to school is peppered with sexual harassment and what India calls “eve-teasing”. Women can’t access healthcare because there are either no facilities at all, or the only ones that there are, are effectively placed with barriers of many kinds in between. Girls and women cannot speak out against any of this because of the perennial sword of patriarchy hanging above their heads.
Just think about it: while we’re looking at the criminals for what they did, demanding that there be a change in the mindset towards women concerning the criminal angle, there’s a whole different mindset that’s being ignored. These girls were forced to leave their houses at the witching hour to use the only toilet in the village. Though the fact remains that these girls are – for that matter, any person is – entitled to go out into the morning, evening or night, it is also true that the isolation, the sheer lack of access to their own facilities forcing them out into the isolation, and the perceived opportunity feed into the already prevailing antagonism against women by being an enabling environment. Every crime needs an enabling environment, and rape is no different. What if these girls had access to their own clean water, to their own toilets, and to their own privacy? They might not have had to go out into the night to face their tragic fate. I am not seeking to justify the actions of the men, or alleviate them of blame, but rather to suggest that any approach to rape and sexual violence must be comprehensive and multi-faceted in tackling the pressing need of shifting mindsets.
A nuanced approach to dealing with the subversive nature of rape in India is key before the bigger picture is even considered. It’s a somewhat unfortunate reality that no one cares about the littler cogs in the wheel that actually keep it moving, instead trying to stop the wheel from turning and getting trampled in the process. The easiest way to stop a wheel is to pull out the linchpin, especially if it’s derailing a vehicle downhill. We have a duty to find that linchpin, and not keep bricks in the path of the wheel – bricks that can be removed allowing the wheel to roll all over again.