American astronaut of Indian origin Sunita Williams has condemned the recent Delhi gang-rape case, and cited it as a case of lack of respect for women in the country. Severely assaulted and raped by five men and a teenager on December 16, the victim died from her injuries on December 29, her plight shaking the conscience of many urban middle class Indians who consider gender rights as important as poverty alleviation.
Interacting with students through a videoconference in Pune on Thursday from National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the USA, Williams denounced the behaviour of men towards women in India. She said, "I guess my bottom line thoughts on this is, I think it is irresponsible not to honour women as equal as men in all fields. Why not? I don't even see a reason why anybody would think any differently."
The case also cast a spotlight on an epidemic of violence against women in India, where a rape is reported on average every 20 minutes. Media coverage of such crimes has intensified in the wake of the outcry over the Delhi attack.
Further illustrating her own example, Williams said she herself has strived to excel in such a field, which is male dominated and get the respect she deserved. "I think I have also tried to be as equal as possible. Of course physical size and shape is a little bit different. Women are generally little bit smaller than men. So that is something you can't overcome. But as best as I could, I tried to do as equal a job as any of the gentlemen that were around me," she added.
Sexual violence against women is widespread in India, say gender rights activists, and crimes such as rape, dowry murders, acid attacks, honour killings, child marriages and human trafficking are common. But the savagery of this crime - where the victim was raped for an hour and tortured with an iron rod, which did serious damage to her internal organs - has stirred national debate and put gender issues on the political agenda.
The Indian-American astronaut also added that India has a lot of potential of producing world class astronauts. "So I hope what you are doing is right on top. I am anxious and hoping that there would be more Indian astronauts in the future. I think there is a whole room full of people there who are interested in it. And obviously it came out this evening. And I am hoping there would be many more to follow in my footsteps," said Williams.
The session was held as a precursor to the 3rd Bharatiya Chhatra Sansad — an Indian student parliament and was organised by a local educational institution in Pune.