An uphill battle for India women

Of all the evils for which man has made himself responsible, none is so degrading, so shocking or so brutal as his abuse of the better half of humanity; the female sex (not the weaker sex). – Mahatma Gandhi, 1921

In an ashram perched high on a hill above the noisy city of Guwahati in northeast India is a small exhibit commemorating the life of Gandhi. Around 9:30 p.m. at the end of July, just a few miles away from the display, a young female student left a bar and was set upon by 18 men. They dragged her into the street, ripped off her clothes, and smiled into the cameras that filmed them.

This happened on one of Guwahati’s busiest streets. But the police weren’t called for 20 minutes. Instead people used their phones to record the men groping the girl’s breasts as she yelled for help. This is known because a cameraman from the local TV channel was there too, capturing the attack for his viewers’ gratification.

The woman was abused for 45 minutes before police arrived.

Initially no attempts were made to arrest the men. And the editor-in-chief of NewsLive (who has since resigned), Atanu Bhuyan, justified on Twitter: “prostitutes form a major chunk of girls who visit bars and night clubs.” It was only a few days later, when the clip went viral, that police were shamed into action.

There is currently no law in India against sexual assault or harassment, which is known by its euphemism, “eve-teasing.” Only vaginal penetration by a penis counts as rape. Molesters are often booked for “insulting,” or “outraging the modesty of a woman,” or even “intruding upon her privacy.” The maximum punishment is a year’s imprisonment or a fine. Most often women are pressured to drop the charges.

For example, a 17-year-old girl died on Jan. 2 after purposefully ingesting poison. In her suicide note, she said she had been gang-raped in November. But when she brought the case to the police, they urged her to withdraw the complaint and encouraged her instead to marry one of her rapists or figure out a monetary settlement with them.

Such disturbing reports go on:

In June, a father beheaded his 20-year-old daughter with a sword in a village in Rajasthan, western India, parading her head around as a warning to other young women who might fall in love with a lower-caste boy.

In July, a man in Indore was arrested for keeping his wife’s genitals locked for four years. Sohanlal Chouhan, 38, “drilled holes” on her body and, before he went to work each day, would insert a small lock, tucking the keys under his socks.

In December, after seeing a movie with her male companion, a 23-year-old woman was gang raped and brutally beaten on a bus in New Dehli. She died earlier this month from severe internal injuries.

Last Friday evening a 29-year-old woman was riding to her village in the northern Punjab state when the driver and conductor refused to stop. Instead, they took her to a remote spot outside of town, met up with five other men, and took turns raping her for the rest of the evening. They dropped her off in her village the next morning.

The men in these cases have been arrested. But usually they aren’t.

According to official figures, reported rape cases have surged more than tenfold over the past 40 years – from 2,487 in 1971 to 24,206 in 2011. And it is not rape alone. Police records from 2011 show kidnappings and abductions of women were up 19.4 percent, women being killed in disputes over dowry payments by 2.7 percent, torture by 5.4 percent, molestation by 5.8 percent and trafficking by an alarming 122 percent over the previous year. Although it’s difficult to accurately calculate, female fetuses are aborted and baby girls killed after birth to such a degree that there is an appallingly skewed sex ratio.

India is a country where the leader of the ruling party, the speaker of the lower house of parliament, at least three chief ministers, and a number of sports and business icons are women. It is also a country where a generation of newly empowered young women is going out to work in larger numbers than ever before. And yet last year TrustLaw – a news service run by Thomson Reuters – conducted a poll of 370 gender specialists around the world, and voted India as the worst place to be a woman out of all the G20 countries.

India needs a broader cultural shift that revalues the lives of girls and women. This means deep-rooted changes in social attitudes to make India’s women more accepted and secure.

After the most recent brutal attacks, Home Secretary has pledged more security on buses, and several fast track courts to adjudicate cases of violence against women. Such procedural improvements are welcome. And they’ll only stand if public outrage continues to chip away at this culture of impunity around abuse.

Sarah T. Schwab is a Sunday OBSERVER contributor and Fredonia State graduate. Send comments to editoral@observer-today.com or view her Web site at www.SarahTSchwab.com