Saturday, December 29, 2012

Safety and Security for Women: India’s Greatest Social Challenge

The brutal gang rape and assault on a 23 year old young lady in a moving bus in the night of December 16, 2012 in New Delhi has caused deep anguish and distress to every right thinking Indian. With her passing away in Mount Elizabeth Hospital, Singapore in the morning of December 29, the hope that she would return to active life as a crusader against the scourge of rape in India has been whiffed away. While India has had the unfortunate history of many sexual assaults on hapless women, the latest incident is shocking for its heinousness, bestiality and savageness. Shaken by the public outrage, Government of India (GoI) has constituted a Commission of Inquiry into the incident and a three member Committee to overhaul the laws. The one-person Commission, to be headed by former Delhi High Court judge Justice Usha Mehra, will also suggest measures to make Delhi and NCR safer for women. The three-member Committee under the former Supreme Court Chief Justice J S Verma would look, among others, into the possibility of rewriting the laws relating to aggravated sexual assault and enhancing penalty for it.

There have been several spontaneous suggestions from the public and political leaders on ways and measures to stop such atrocities. Several individuals and organizations have suggested death sentence as a deterrent for such heinous crimes. At a tactical and operational level, more intensive night time patrolling, provision of GPS for buses, elimination of tinting on windows of automobiles, more police stations manned by women, special protection for women on the move in the night times, screening of drivers and cleaners for criminal record, fast track courts to try perpetrators of assaults on women, early closure of night time movie halls and pubs, community protection, special protection by employers, formation of self-help groups and several other suggestions have been made. Even as this incident has stirred the nation’s conscience, there has been a flow of news on continued incidence of assaults on women from various towns, cities and states without any letup. This makes one wonder whether such assaults on women, sexual and/or otherwise, do not reflect a widespread and deeply entrenched social scourge in India.

Social paradox

India has had a long and hoary tradition of according the pride of place for womanhood in making homes and building society. The Indian scriptures and folklore advocate and encourage the concept of protection for womenfolk. Great emphasis is laid on the responsibilities of a man in protecting a lady, as a father, brother, husband or son. In overt ways, India has also been one of the very few countries which encouraged physical reservation of space for women in commuting, excusive schools and colleges for women, reservations or preferential allotments for girls in education etc. The families and girl children have also risen to the occasion and achieved high levels in studies, and equality in certain professions such as banking, medicine, nursing, information technology and so on. The educated female of India is today able to work on her own and travel independently in India and abroad.

Despite this apparent progress, the typical girl child or the mature lady continues to be highly vulnerable to the mischief, and bestiality, of the Indian male. Girl students and working women find public commuting a daily curse, given the harassment they are subjected to. Working late nights in fulfilment of academic and professional pursuits carries unpredictable risks. Being alone at home in the nights brings additional risks to the lady caretakers of the house. The family may protect a girl or a lady (even that seems to be under threat in certain cases) but the neighbourhood community or the broader society seems to have little concern, and even appears to harbour a distinct disdain, for the so called weaker gender. While this trend is blamed on the patriarchal and male dominated nature of the Indian society on one hand and the liberal winds of westernization, the real causes may run a lot deeper.

Discipline as a foundation

The Indian society is badly in need of a fundamental fix, in terms of discipline. The old generations were brought up with a thorough grounding on the essential values of life from the famed scriptures and religious teachings. The sayings of great Swamis like Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Sri Vivekananda, and exemplification by great leaders like Gandhiji and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, just to quote a few names, were inspirational. The social mores and cultural events encouraged discipline and respected womanhood. People, by and large, respected rule of law and feared the consequences of non-compliance. Today’s situation is in abject contrast to the erstwhile disciplined living. The unbridled openness of the society, collapse of the joint families, rampant consumerism and irrational ostentation have destroyed the foundations of discipline, and respect for rules on which the Indian society had been built for centuries. 

The fundamental need is to restore discipline and compliance as the bedrock of a reformed Indian society. In a milieu where the working families have no time of their own to teach the children or have no space for their elders to assume the responsibility, pre-school day care centres and schools have to assume the responsibility of incorporating lessons from all religions that respect and protect womanhood. Every institution has to establish fundamental rules that discipline the members to respect the womenfolk. From villages to cities, disciplined living has to become a cultural anchor. The fact that women are moving into economic independence does not mean that the old traditions of treating womenfolk with respect in public places and in private homes need to be dispensed with. Institutions have to be rated and ranked for their commitment to disciplinary teachings. Families also must patronize institutions for their disciplined way of functioning rather than for glossy IIT admission rankings.    

Positioning as a reinforcement

While a reinforcement of the foundations of discipline are extremely important, it is equally necessary to promote womanhood in a positive light in all public forums. Over the years, the advertising channels and movie houses have badly slid down in terms of depicting the womanhood. In an age where women are proving, time and again, that they are intellectually and economically second to none, such forums sadly project women as objects of desire certain times. It is important that the finer elements of living, including the sentiments of joint living, are restored in the public media. Movies which depict positive values have even in recent times seen good commercial appeal, indicating that it is still possible to bring out the basic human values.

The other reinforcement potentially is to enable more massive employment of womenfolk in various avocations. By all social and economic indicators, the position of the lady of the house as the builder of the home, and in a broader sense as the builder of the society, needs reinforcement. This is a task which requires the women to also participate and cooperate as a community network. In several parts of the country, religious and community festivals provide the right backdrop for the respectful position that the womenfolk command in the society. India has seen massive campaigns in the past for specific causes, for example family planning, AIDS/HIV control and tourism. It is time for a massive campaign to highlight the need to respect and protect the girl child and the woman. 

In the ultimate analysis, an educated population and an employed society offer additional protection for the reestablishment of the protective moorings of the Indian male and the protected nature of the Indian female. Right education that is relevant for India must have a fine blend of Western liberalization and Oriental conservatism. Right employment that is relevant for India must provide for appropriate levels of protection for the ladies in employment.  Equality and equity for men and women in all walks of life must continue to be accompanied by special dispensation relevant for women in India.   

Safety and security as a mission

While the fundamental and reinforcement fixes advocated herein would provide long term alleviation, the several tactical and operational measures that have been put across in the media, some of which have been reiterated and supplemented in this blog post, need urgent execution. It is to be hoped that the six people and any other persons involved directly or indirectly in the murderous sexual assault are dispensed deterrent punishment and that the Commission of Inquiry headed by Justice Usha Mehra and the Committee headed by Justice J S Verma would complete their respective works expeditiously and come up with a string of measures and statute changes that restore the glory of the Indian woman. While the entire nation grieves for the horrendous suffering the brave lady had to bear as a person over the last few days and prays for the departed soul to rest in peace, it is to be fervently sought that the collective anguish and determination of the governments and the society would bring in changes that once for all eliminate social scourge of the assault on the womanhood. 

Posted by Dr CB Rao on December 29, 2012

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