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The Continuing Battle for Women’s Safety and Equality in India

The shocked woman was sitting on the hospital bed, holding up her cell phone and talking to the camera about the horrific experience she had just experienced. In the picture, her nose was bruised and her face was swollen, and the man sitting next to her was not much better. She suppressed her emotions and said to her fans in Spanish, “I thought they were going to kill us.”

The two people talking are a couple. The woman’s name is Fernanda and the man’s name is Vincent. They love to ride around the world and have 200,000 followers on Instagram. As of the time of the incident, the two had traveled to 66 countries by bicycle, but who knew they would encounter a sudden disaster in India.

On March 1, when the two were traveling to the Dumka region of Jharkhand, India, they decided to set up a temporary tent and take a rest. Unexpectedly, at about 7 pm that night, a group of strange Indian men broke into the tent and attacked them.

When the two were beaten until they were unable to fight back, the group began to take turns sexually assaulting Fernanda.

Although the local police acted quickly and arrested all the suspects within a few days, the Indian police seemed more interested in “disciplining” the victims than focusing on punishing the perpetrators. On the one hand, the Indian police asked Fernanda to delete the relevant videos posted on her Ins account, saying that otherwise they would “interfere with the investigation”; on the other hand, they also held a special handover ceremony and invited the media to witness the payment of victim compensation to Vincent. Gold – a check for 1 million rupees (approximately RMB 86,800). Later, the internet celebrity couple changed their tune and said that India is “a great country.”

The turn of events was shocking, and even many Indian netizens began to cynicize the domestic police. Here, whitewashing the problem becomes a priority when the soil that breeds it cannot be easily changed.

Indian officials have once promoted that they are “one of the four countries with the lowest rape rates”, but the word “rate” is related to the country’s total population. As early as last year, India had become the most populous country in the world with a total population of 1.428 billion. If phrased wisely, a large population base can “dilute” the seriousness of the problem.

But the reality is that sexual violence against women occurs frequently across India. According to the latest data from India’s National Crime Records Bureau, the Indian police recorded a total of 31,516 rape cases, an average of 90 cases per day, an increase of 20% from 2021. Furthermore, due to widespread stigmatization of female victims, the actual number of rape cases is likely to be much higher than officially recorded.

It is hard to imagine that in a modern country, a woman has to worry about the possibility of being sexually harassed or assaulted by a strange man the moment she steps out of the house.

The atrocities committed by Indian men against women often start with staring. That kind of constant and uncomfortable looking at them is the “background” for many single female bloggers’ Vlogs of their trip to India, until one of them decides to take further action.

In 2023, South Korean YouTube blogger Soon Yi “accidentally” recorded the entire process of being sexually harassed in Jodhpur, a famous tourist resort in India–“Blue City”. When she went out to have breakfast, what made her feel uncomfortable was just the “attention” from male customers and male shopkeepers, but the excessive attention turned into a more dangerous situation when she started climbing the mountain – a strange man she couldn’t get rid of. .

The sensitive Shunyi decided to leave quickly, but the man who seemed to be a local undoubtedly knew the mountain road better than her. He exposed his genitals to Shunyi on the stairs going down the mountain, and waved to her with a smile.

The United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and other countries have issued announcements to remind female travelers in India to take more precautions. Among the advice offered by veteran India travel blogger Mary Ellen Walder is that doing your research ahead of time is a key way to stay safe, as “inappropriate dress, casual, friendly words or Any gesture may be seen as an invitation.”

For a long time, harassment of women in India was known as “Eve’s Tease.” Such common sayings imply that women are the trigger for sexual harassment and shift the blame from the perpetrator to the victim. This cultural tolerance and acquiescence further strengthens Indian men’s sense of superiority and allows sexual harassment to continue and spread in society.

This kind of “victim-guilt theory” language paradigm did not change until the “Black Bus Gang Rape Case” in India in 2012. Behavior that was once trivial began to be taken seriously and officially recognized as sexual harassment.

On December 16, 2012, Jyoti Singh, a 23-year-old female college student studying at the Medical College of the University of Delhi in India, and her male friend were coaxed into having sex with each other when they were going home after watching a movie in the evening. A privately operated bus. The six men in the car beat up their male friend and imprisoned him in the cab. They pulled Singer into the car, gang-raped him, and brutally injured him with an iron rod. Singer eventually died from his injuries.

After this incident, angry people took to the streets to protest. India’s mainstream media rarely reported all aspects of the incident and expressed doubts about the police’s inaction. This is the first time in India’s history that issues surrounding women’s rights and violence against women have become the forefront of national politics.

The widespread protests left their mark on the legal system. India is beginning to introduce stricter penalties for sexual assault, criminalize voyeurism and stalking, and set up fast-track courts for rape cases. At the same time, the issue of sexual violence against women has also been widely included in public discussion spaces. This is a huge progress for Indian women.

However, progress is not a true victory. Although the situation has improved, the problem of rape continues, and reports surrounding gang rape cases are full of shocking details. What is wrong with India?

“If my daughters and sisters had premarital sex, I would most definitely drag them to the farmhouse and pour gasoline on them and set them on fire in front of the whole family.”

The person who said this was the defense lawyer for the criminals in the 2012 Indian black bus case. He blamed Jyoti Singh’s death on her “impurity”.

In 2015, director Lesley Youdevin used a documentary “India’s Daughter” to present more horrific details to the public. People can’t see any sign of remorse on the faces of rapists. On the contrary, they can face the camera directly and boldly state that “women are more responsible for rape than men.”

In Indian culture and Hindu tradition, female fidelity and purity are important concepts and are often seen as an important part of family honor. In the eyes of a considerable number of Indian men, staying out at nine o’clock in the evening or walking with a man who is not their husband is a “crime” that needs to be punished.

Affected by this pressure, Indian women who have been raped often carry a heavy burden of stigma, and many of them do not choose to report the crime. What is even more disappointing is that even if someone reports a crime, the relevant law enforcement officials will take a relatively lazy approach to handling it. According to a report by India’s National Crime Records Bureau, the conviction rate for rape cases in India has hovered below 30% over the past few years.

Maryam Dhawal, secretary-general of the All India Democratic Women’s Association, explained that although the sensational gang rape case will gain public attention in a short period of time, the culture of downplaying sexual harassment and violence against women has always existed.

In India, women are often put on the back burner. Even though upper-caste women may have more economic and social advantages than lower-caste women, it still cannot eliminate the gender inequality they face in Indian society.

Take the right to education, for example. Different from the trend in many countries where higher education levels lead to better employment opportunities, the work participation rate of Indian women has declined as the higher education acceptance rate increases.

Relevant studies show that today, Indian men are becoming more inclined to marry highly educated women, not to increase family income, but to enable them to better educate their children. At the same time, women with advanced degrees have fewer employment opportunities to choose from than well-educated Indian men. Therefore, marrying into a wealthier family becomes a good option for these women.

When Indian women who have the right to education and more material resources are faced with such a passive situation, Indian women in relatively backward areas often face a more cruel reality.

UN Women has pointed out that poverty increases violence, especially against women. This situation becomes even more severe when the economic situation is bad.

Although India’s gross domestic product (GDP) growth has shown a positive growth trend since Indian Prime Minister Modi successfully came to power in 2019, most of the reform actions pursued by Modi have focused on macroeconomic and macroeconomic policies favored by the elite. In terms of global competitiveness, on the issue of land reform that is most important to farmers, the progress of the Modi government has been slow and controversial.

“Nikkei Asian Review” once stated that “Modi Economics” relies heavily on the employment and growth brought by the development of large companies, but this has caused resources to become increasingly concentrated in a few large cities.

Since the “black bus gang rape case” in India in 2012, the issue of sexual violence against women has finally been faced seriously, but this has also triggered another dangerous trend, that is, society prevents women from participating too much in public life in the name of “protection” .

For example, some Indian colleges have implemented earlier curfew times for female dormitories; employers are more likely to choose men than women for jobs that require night shifts.

This kind of “benevolent patriarchal” move can easily be justified on the basis of superficiality. Some scholars pointed out that people often focus on the public dangers faced by women without paying attention to the gendered nature of this danger. This risks forcing women to make further compromises when using public spaces.

Perhaps in an effort to counter this discourse, inspired by Why Hang Out? Inspired by the book “Women and Risks on the Streets of Mumbai”, Mumbai, India launched the “Loitering” movement, advocating that women should have the right to walk, wander and explore freely anywhere in the city, day or night, without worrying about safety or being scrutinized by society. .

The movement subsequently spread to other Indian cities and even across borders, echoing the “Girls in Tea Houses” movement in Pakistan.

At the same time, how to ensure that more women can safely enjoy their legal rights to live in public spaces has also attracted the attention of relevant governments.

Since October 2019, the Delhi government has begun to implement a new policy called “Pink Ticket” – women can travel for free on all public buses serving the city of Delhi.

In addition, this policy also includes the installation of devices such as cameras and emergency buttons on buses, and the deployment of 13,000 law enforcement officers to maintain public security. Before taking the job, they need to receive formal training on the job, including reporting and responding to sexual harassment cases.

The latest data shows that more than 4.54 million women boarded buses between 2022 and 2023. Between March and July 2021, after the first wave of the COVID-19 epidemic, the proportion of female passengers on Delhi buses was as high as 80%.

Of course, this policy also has areas for improvement. According to a 2023 report released by Greenpeace India, an international environmental organization, 54.2% of respondents said they would be derogated by bus staff and male passengers.

While the social environment is still not safe enough, by providing free transportation tools, it has actually expanded the space and freedom of Indian women, especially low-income women. However, how to further ensure that more women have access to such services and expand this service concept to a wider range of areas are issues that India needs to think about.

But this is not a problem unique to India.

UN-Habitat states in “Her Cities: A City Guide to Sustainable and Inclusive Urban Planning and Design with Women”: “From the age of 8, 80% of public spaces are dominated by men, while women They feel that they are excluded and insecure in these spaces.”

This is not only a common phenomenon, but also due to the lack of relevant knowledge in urban planning and design, which has led to “the growing gender gap in the process of urban development and the increasing marginalization of disadvantaged groups.”

Making women feel safe and comfortable in public spaces is an important social issue. At a fundamental level, it is not only necessary to recognize the legitimacy of women’s needs, but also to include women in the decision-making process and integrate gender considerations into the overall urban planning. process.

When social culture cannot be changed in the short term, actions to ensure women’s legal rights and interests can be continuously improved in ongoing actions, but it must not hesitate to move forward because it is not “perfect” enough.

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