Until a few weeks ago, most of us had a barely passing familiarity with Badaun in Uttar Pradesh. Around 200 kms and less than a four-hour drive from the national capital, Delhi, the area hit the headlines after the brutal rape and murder of two teenaged girls. It is an old story, told again with callous violence and viciousness. Two cousins — some accounts put them at 12 and 15 years of age, others at 14 and 15 — had to attend to nature's call. They had no toilet in their house and they went to the fields to relieve themselves. They never returned home. Their bodies were found hanging — their dupattas tied around their necks — from a mango tree. They had been raped, strangled and strung up like the spoils from a shikaar. Two young men from a neighbouring village, and two police officers are believed to be the culprits.
This is not the first rape in India, and it is unlikely to be the last. A report by PRS Legislative in 2011 looked at the abysmal state of women's safety in India. According to the report there were 23,582 rapes in India that year — almost 65 rapes on a daily basis and around 3 every hour. But, most experts believe that the number of rapes is underreported. There are several reasons for this — the starting point being the social stigma assigned to the rape victim and the perception of her having lost her honour. Rather than being seen as a survivor of a heinous crime, she is seen as the provoker of the crime. And, her gender is enough to stigmatise her for life. Different views are put forward: maybe she was dressed provocatively, maybe she led the boys on, maybe she had 'loose' morals, maybe she said no, but meant yes. We have all heard these comments from people who should know better — politicians, policemen, 'elders' of the community and the likes.
At the core of the debate on women's safety lie three main issues. The first is the availability of safe spaces — sanitation within the house, or rather the lack of it, and lack of street lighting indicate the paucity of safe spaces. The second is the dearth of spaces where the boys and girls, men and women can meet socially on an equal footing — schools, colleges, employment, and social occasions. The third issue is the age-old problem of the distinctions in social hierarchies and the acceptance of the rapist in the society while the victim is shunned.
The one thing you realise when you travel the length and breadth of India, visiting small hamlets and villages, is the lack of sanitation. There are few public toilets that are usable, even on state or national highways. Those that do exist make you fear attack from scorpions and snakes, not to mention the fact that they have doors that don't shut and windows that give you full view of the world, and the world a view of you — without any means of securing your privacy. Schools and colleges — public spaces where both genders congregate — show a similar problem. Toilets, and the privacy to use them, are such an important facet of safety and we don't discuss this problem enough. The norm is to use the world at large as a public toilet. Apart from health and hygiene issues, there is also the very grave issue of safety. The first thing to do is to address this. Young girls, even if they lived in the most secure state in the universe, should have the right to perform their bodily functions in relative privacy. This is something that most of us living in relative middle-class comfort in cities take for granted. Associated with this is the problem of darkness due to massive power cuts in towns and villages. And darkness encourages the breach of law.
Where boys and girls grow up, studying together, sharing playtime and understanding and respecting differences, there tends to be a natural evolution of gender sensitisation. On the other hand, when girls and boys are segregated and social intercourse is considered taboo, you have scenarios where stereotypes and old mindsets are perpetuated. The second important factor to help build a safer world for women is creation of spaces where they are not just considered to be equals, but also where their individuality and personal preferences are respected. The creation of these spaces needs to be backed by education not just of young boys and girls, but also of their parents, teachers, elders in the community and administration. Police reforms and judicial reforms would help, but unless society as a whole is in sync with the need for social reform that prevents young men from seeing young women as prey for the taking, no amount of policing on the streets or stringent punishment is going to help.
And lastly, there is a problem of social hierarchies and what is considered acceptable behaviour. While caste is as much of a factor as class, there is a third problem, and that is the unwillingness of those who wield power to bring about change. Caste and class reforms may take generations and women's safety cannot be held in abeyance till that is achieved. And, this is where the Indian State needs to step in. With the recent changes in law, rape trials are speedier and more stringent. We have seen the effects of this in both the Nirbhaya and the Shakti Mills rape cases – due process was followed and the guilty were punished. This needs to extend to the smallest hamlet in India. Women will be safer, if the system punished the guilty, without fear or favour of powerful local interests. However, as long as the guilty walk around with their heads held high and their chests puffed up with pride, and the victims cower in their houses in fear and shame, nothing will change.
The author is Head, Digital Content, Zee Media Corporation; @calamur