Will tragedy translate into significant change for India’s women?

Elizabeth Hosier

On 16th December 2012 a 23 year old woman was gang raped in Delhi, India.  Thirteen days later she died from the injuries sustained.  This tragic event has connected with a global audience: but will it translate into significant change for India’s women?

The Media Storm

The entangled media furore, particularly from a western perspective, can be equally applauded for brave reporting and blasted for condescension.  The apex of which is best exemplified through the Purves vs O’Toole saga, in which these contrasting viewpoints have been ridiculed for projecting neo-colonialism and patronising empathy respectively.  It is my opinion that, yes, the west undoubtedly has rapes occurring on a regular basis (the US Steubenville rape has frequently been cited as a recent example) but India and the potential change for Indian women should be treated as its own case.  Common to all development challenges, global parallels can be made and be useful in galvanising momentum for change, however it is the unique aspects of each locale and situation that will present the biggest hurdles.

A Tipping Point?

What will be the outcome once the storm dies down?  Will this be a tangible tipping point or a short lived reference point on the long road to change?  As a distant blogger, I will make no claims in being able to capture the current feeling on a Delhi street, let alone a remote Indian village.  I can only reflect on the facts at hand.  Despite proclaimed diversionary tactics adopted by the Indian government, a number of demonstrations, candle vigils and social media protests have been carried out.  To this date, tangible change has been evidenced in the set-up of government-run helplines and the drawing out of future action plans, hinting at the potential for reforms.

However, reforms are unlikely to be enough.  Not only would this rely upon an undefiled police force, stronger rape laws would likely only protect the middle classes and elude the more vulnerable residing in remote rural areas.  There is a need for change to the deep-rooted and prevalent discriminatory attitudes towards Indian women.  It is unclear what can or will spark this empowerment for women; one potential route would be to garner a greater female presence in political channels, another would be to stress the need for respect for women in both the domestic and public spheres.

From a less promising perspective, several reported rapes have occurred since the initial tragedy and there is no doubt that the number of reported occurrences is lower than actual incidents.  The gang rapists are pleading enforcement of social purity in their defence; a motive that has been picked up on in wider debate concerning the merits of moving away from a patriarchal society, with claims that a more westernised culture is the reason behind the prevalence of rape.  And so the predominately youthful vigour driving the debate for change may yet be out-manoeuvred, indicative that empowerment for India’s women may be some generations delayed.

A Global Perspective

Gender violence is known to be the most pervasive but least recognised global human rights violation.  There is an opportunity for the energy from India’s situation to be seized upon.  Indeed, taking their lead from India’s demonstrations, a number of protests relating to local issues of rape and domestic violence have been sparked in nearby Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.  There is no illusion that, for example the gender equality Millennium Development Goal will be achieved overnight; however, every opportunity to move away from any misogynistic society should be maximised.

Ultimately, it is unlikely that, in the present situation, landslide change will occur for India’s women: but any improvement is significant, no matter how small.

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