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The latest incidents in India continue to ignite debate, but how do we address India’s chauvinist and misogynist attitudes?
The recent gang rapes of a two-year-old and five-year-old girl in Delhi have invited renewed scrutiny of the Indian capital and the nation at large, almost three years on from the gang rape of Jyoti Singh Pandey on a private bus that sparked widespread protests and resulted in the introduction of new laws targeting perpetrators of sexual violence against women in India. The two-year-old girl was found unconscious and bleeding in a park just three hours after she went missing, while the five-year-old girl was gang raped in a separate incident in Anand Vihar. The abhorrent crimes prompted Arvind Kejriwal, the Chief Minister of Delhi, to place the blame on Delhi Police, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Lieutenant-Governor Najeeb Jung – but the incidents are symptomatic of a deeply-rooted problem engrained in India’s social fabric, one which policymakers and law enforcement agencies are effectively powerless to address.
When I first heard of the most recent Delhi gang rapes, I publicly stated that incidents such as this make me embarrassed to be Indian. In a debate with a friend, I was told that I was out of line – that I should not be embarrassed to be Indian, because things like this occur all over the world, and misogyny is a problem with the human condition, rather than an issue isolated to India. That India’s issues with sexual violence are over-reported by a loud minority, rather than the quiet majority. That as a journalist, if I cannot offer a solution, I should not comment at all.
Let us be clear that India is not the only country in the world in which women are mistreated by men. Nor is it necessarily the worst – sexual violence statistics are notorious for their unreliability, with factors such as reporting rates and the legal definitions of “rape” significantly skewing results. By various methods, South Africa, Mexico, Sweden and even Australia could be considered the “rape capitals” of the world. However, acknowledging that similar crimes occur in other countries (whatever the prevalence) and recognising that there is a problem in India are hardly mutually exclusive ideas.
Every visitor to the subcontinent has experienced an example of the misogyny that plagues daily life in India. Whether it is men leering in the streets, throwaway comments on public transport or wandering hands in crowded temples, the hypocritical dichotomy that characterises India is devastatingly clear; while several million female deities are worshipped by Indian men on a daily basis, many of the same men treat real-life females as second class citizens, mere pawns in a long-running game of patriarchy that has been festering for hundreds of years.
Reputable sources estimate that in three generations, more than 50 million women have been “selectively eliminated” from India’s population. Female feticide, infanticide, intentional starvation and neglect of girls under five have all contributed to that number, as have dowry related murders, honour killings and the highest maternal mortality rate in the world. For context, 50 million is more than the entire populations of Sweden, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium and Portugal combined. With such a burning desire for male children, it is unsurprising, yet inexcusable, that India’s women learn to grow up accepting subservience and tolerating chauvinism.
With femicide so entrenched in Indian society even today – it is estimated that more than 1 million cases of female foeticide occur every year – there is only so much that policymakers can do to tackle the problem, especially in such a large country with a population that demands attention to many other important issues. Good governance can achieve many things, but the cultural change critical to an improvement in the standing of women in society requires intervention at an individual level.
During the course of the debate with my friend, I had to inform him that regrettably, I could not offer a solution to centuries of endemic misogyny any more so than can Prime Minister Modi or the Chief of Delhi Police. However, I stand by my comments – incidents like this make me embarrassed to be an Indian male.
It is because I am proud of my Indian heritage that I also have the capacity to be embarrassed by its flaws. I would much rather risk adding my voice to a “loud minority” calling for positive change rather than stay quiet with the majority.