After “Damini”: the Delhi gang rape and women’s empowerment in India

The recent gang-rape and subsequent death of a 23 year old woman in Delhi has sparked condemnation all over the world. Former DiA 2-month India volunteer Louisa Jones considers the tensions between India’s rapid economic development and its attitudes towards women.

One of the many protests that have started up around India. Photo by ramesh_lalwani/ Creative Commons

One of the many protests that have started up around India. Photo by ramesh_lalwani/ Creative Commons

India’s meteoric rise on the world economic stage in the last few decades has brought considerable benefits to a small, well-educated proportion of society. The boom of IT and related industries has given birth to smart metropolises bristling with foreign investment and an insatiable appetite for commercialism. The egalitarian gender roles of this pseudo-Western world have thrown upwardly mobile women a life raft, helping to break down the stigma that would have once clung to them had they dared aspire to a life outside the home.

However, when an entity as vast as India grows at such rapid speed, cracks are bound to develop. Large portions of society remain culturally conservative, struggling to reconcile the growing freedoms of modern women with their own highly patriarchal values. With increasing frequency this tension is spilling over in the form of violence against women: last month’s gang-rape in Delhi tragically underlined the ugly reality faced by women of all ages, races and castes every day.

It took this heinous attack for the public to realise the truth: it doesn’t matter how attentive a girl is in her studies, how much she believes in herself, nor how much her parents sacrifice to realise her dreams; at the last hurdle she could still end up violated and mortally injured, because in the eyes of phantom men she is nothing more than a woman – worthless, undeserving, disposable.

This was no isolated incident. The number of reported rapes doubled between 1990 and 2008, though we can expect the actual figure to be much higher. India’s National Crime Records Bureau estimates that one rape is committed every 22 minutes. All in all, India, the largest democracy in the world, is the fourth most unsafe country in which to be a woman (after the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Pakistan and Afghanistan).

What does this say about current methods for improving women’s empowerment, a keystone considered fundamental to the global South’s achievement of all eight Millennium Development Goals in 2015? Have development professionals really got it right? Increasing access to education for girls is crucial, and microfinance – when deployed in the right way – can bring considerable economic gain to women and their families. However, these textbook initiatives fail to address the adversity against which women must struggle in the first place, namely their subjugation, restriction and discrimination by men.

It is this discrimination that has allowed gender violence to escalate unchecked in India, fed by a sense of male entitlement within a culture whose daughters are traditionally regarded as a drain on the family resources. ‘Eve-teasing’ – a term commonly used to describe groping and lewd gestures & comments – trivialises sexism as an uncontrollable facet of male nature. Women, on the other hand – the potential victims – are cautioned at every turn to rein in their allure or face the consequences. Government representatives meanwhile play down the dangers, suggesting everything from carrying chilli powder to avoiding wearing Western clothes (the latter tip coming from the chairperson of the National Commission of Women no less) as legitimate measures to avoid rape.

Clearly what is lacking here is basic respect for women as fully-formed, strong, intelligent human beings with the same elemental rights and needs as men. Until the balance is righted, the empowerment of women can never be fully complete. The realisation of this goal in India would require a moral re-education programme of epic proportions, and perhaps that is why only a handful of NGOs in India are currently working to incorporate men into the empowerment equation.

Although the government’s lethargic response to the Delhi gang-rape has largely played up to the immediate demands of the public (promising better policing, two inquiries, deliberation on the death penalty and an official website to name and shame convicted rapists), much less publicised has been the proposed foundation, announced by Women and Child Development Minister Krishna Tirath, of a national scheme for the ‘empowerment of adolescent boys’. If approved by the Union Cabinet, this programme would work in parallel to its existing girls’ counterpart, promoting gender equality to the nation’s next generation of boys at their most impressionable age (11-18).

After the panicked suppression of anti-rape protests in the capital, could this glimmer of long-term commitment be an acknowledgement of the stirring of middle-class India’s ethical conscience? Somehow, the touchpaper has been lit. Men and women who remained silent for years are now turning out in their thousands to demand justice for women. After the death of ‘Damini’ – the symbolic name given to the anonymous victim by her supporters – inaction is no longer good enough. In the words of Shabana Azmi, Bollywood actress and social activist,

Our impotence stares us in the face. May SHE become the wake-up call our country needs. We must soul-search. Female foeticide; inequal access to nutrition, education, health; no decision making powers; dowry demands; rapes rampant. INDIA WAKE UP!

Let’s hope the sentiment lasts as the media frenzy fades.

Development in Action (DiA) is a development education charity run entirely by young people, for young people. 

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