Letter from San Francisco #2

January 13th, 2013 by Jane Sloane.

The gang rape in Delhi by six men of a 23 year old physiotherapy student who later died of her extensive injuries deservedly prompted outrage and protests across India. The random nature of the crime, its brutality and the woman’s profile all converged to bring women, and later men, out onto the streets in protest. The fury of the public caught the government by surprise and its aggressive response to protestors, including the use of tear gas, water cannons and beating by riot police further infuriated the crowd. In response, the government imposed a terrorism law preventing even small gatherings and closed vast portions of New Delhi to both pedestrian and vehicular traffic. Over 18,000 police were deployed to enforce this law.

In contrast to the speed with which the government in India acted to suppress protestors, the glacial pace at which the government responded to those agitating for change to protect women’s rights affirmed a widespread belief that the police protected the powerful rather than protecting citizens from perpetrators. The event also exposed the collision between those committed to women realizing their rights and the entrenched patriarchal culture that is deeply uneasy about advances in women’s education and economic independence.

Writing in the Indian Express, author Kishwar Desai said that the gang rape demonstrated to some that many men are “deeply uncomfortable with women displaying their independence, receiving education and joining the work force. The gang rape becomes a form of subduing the women, collectively, and establishing their male superiority.”

As international outrage grew, and with the media in India calling the young woman who was raped “Nirbhaya” (the fearless), she became a potent symbol of the depth of India’s misogyny. The Indian Government scrambled and later announced the establishment of a new fast track court to handle cases involving crimes against women.

Gang rapes are now common in India, a country that some surveys suggest has one of the highest rates of sexual violence in the world. Figures published this month show that out of 635 reported cases of rape and 745 arrests in Delhi last year, there was only one conviction. If India were to clear the backlog of hundreds of thousands of cases with its current resources it would take at least twenty years for all cases to be heard.

The UN Secretary General, Ban-Ki Moon, urged the Indian Government to take action to protect women. “Every girl and woman has the right to be respected, valued and protected,” he said in a statement that both welcomed current steps by the government as well as calling for further action and “reforms to deter such crimes and bring the perpetrators to justice.” While the UN has offered to assist India in strengthening critical response for rape victims, the needs are complex. In many parts of the country, health systems are basic and there is a lack of sanitation facilities in many rural areas thus further exposing women when they are most vulnerable.

Imagine if the woman in India who was raped had instead been able to board a clearly marked safe bus that was managed and operated by women and men working together. And that she knew there was a safety officer on board to protect her at night, and if there were to be a problem that police support would swiftly be at hand. Imagine if she were boarding a bus where men knew that if they were violent to women they would face immediate action and harsh penalties and that their life would be changed forever. Where she knew that if, despite these safeguards, she was still attacked, that there was a system in place to ensure that justice was served. That she lived in a country where the infrastructure was in place to support her safety and security in everyday life. With an education and political system that supported her to assume a decision-making role, perhaps even being the one to write and enact the legislation urgently needed to secure women’s full human rights.

In India, as indeed in many countries, the need for such change is urgent. There is also the need for a widespread education campaign for men who think that rape is about sex when it’s about power.

One example of this confusion (delusion), is a rape case near the town of Halvad in the western state of Gujarat. Apparently police were tipped off by someone close to the victim, who told them that over the last two years a 32-year-old woman had been raped at least 40 times by her brother-in-law and by her 70-year-old father-in-law, with whom both the woman and her husband lived. When questioned by police, the two men affirmed that they had “repeatedly” raped the woman “almost every day” according to an officer, but defended their actions by telling the officers that the women was in need of “sexual intimacy” because her husband had become sexually impotent a few years earlier after contracting an illness. The officer assured journalists that his team was investigating this claim by making the victim’s husband undergo medical tests. “Only after the medical tests can it be ascertained whether he turned impotent or not,” the officer said.

As in a number of other countries, Indian law doesn’t recognize marital rape or inserting objects into women as being rape. It also doesn’t protect women or prosecute men for other crimes against women, such as stalking and sexual harassment. So legislative reform is vital and it must be accompanied by societal reform. Even today, many female fetuses are aborted. As a consequence, in Delhi, there are 866 women for every 1,000 men, and in the northern states of Punjab and Haryana, the women-to-men ratios are 893 and 877 women for every 1,000 men respectively.

If a girl survives childbirth, she will often continue to be the last one to be fed and to receive health care or an education. She is thus more likely to be malnourished and to be exposed to violence. This includes being sexually harassed on streets, at her work, on buses and trains and raped at home and in public spaces. If she resists, she may be attacked with acid while other women may be killed over dowry disputes. This level of hate pervades all levels of Indian society, from rural poor to the intellectual elite. Even some members of the Uttar Pradesh state assembly currently face charges including gang rape.

In April 2012, Tehelka News magazine published an article called “The rapes will go on” that was based on the interviews it conducted with 30 policemen who worked in Delhi and surrounding areas. The views of these officers were revealing. Some expressed the viewpoint that rape victims often “asked for it” or “deserved it due to their going to a pub or working as a prostitutes”. Some officers said that if a woman had consensual sex with one man, she “shouldn’t complain if others joined in.”

Without both legislation and compulsory gender training for all government officials and those charged with protecting women, the attitudinal and societal changes most needed for women’s rights to be respected will not occur. Similarly, there’s a need for men’s attitudes to change in the home and in the broader community and for men to value women’s full human rights. Thankfully many men are already challenging male friends and family members to do just that. The impact of this latest rape has also been to bring men onto the streets to join with women in demanding change at every level.

In Aboriginal Australia, the first ever remote community Night Patrol, started by a group of women in Yuendumu in 1991, reduced domestic violence in the community by 80% in its first year. Bands of Aboriginal nanas literally took back the night and hit the streets late each evening to keep girls safe, resolve drunken arguments, deal with alcohol abuse, mob violence and domestic violence. This action by women elders in local communities coming together to stem the violence was powerful. Women’s organizations in India mightn’t yet have organized night patrols but they’ve been working smart to address gender based violence.

What’s surprising, in light of all this media coverage, is how little attention has been paid to the work being done by women’s rights organizations over many years to end violence against women.

The Global Fund for Women has supported 55 women led organizations in India to address gender based violence. This includes Disha Social Organization, an organization that works in 50 villages in Muslim and lower-caste areas to address cases of violence against women and to educate adolescent girls about women’s rights and reproductive health. One of its programs is a Women’s Court, which is held monthly to review cases of violence against women. Another group works to empower individual women while educating their families and communities, and advocating for legal reform and state responsibility. Over the past three decades, the group has confronted issues of dowry torture, marital violence, female infanticide, sexual harassment, rape and trafficking of women.

Another organization works to motivate local communities to support the safety of all women in the community. One group works to support women in informal sectors such as domestic and factory workers, migrant women from rural villages, and housewives, whose rights are routinely violated economically, physically, and legally. Another group focuses on strengthening the public health care system, reducing maternal and infant mortality rates, increasing food security and building the capacity of women to participate in village development.

In recognition of the importance of local tribal groups, another women’s organization led by experienced tribal women leaders’ works with young tribal women to support their rights and wellbeing. Other groups address wife desertion, honor killings, early child marriage and maternal health through public advocacy, dialogue, negotiation and mobilization. Some groups have helped construct and acquire community halls, thousands of latrines and smokeless challahs as well as housing for rural women.

Several groups were founded by women in direct response to their own experience of violence. For instance, VEDIKA was founded in Andhra Pradesh by a Dalit woman named Lakkineni Jaya, after she was gang-raped by police officers and local officials did nothing to protest this injustice. Despite the lack of support from the local community, Jaya saw the need for “a women’s organization headed by Dalit women in order to empower Dalit women and protect their rights.” Since its formation in 1996, the group has continued to be active in monitoring cases of human rights violations against Dalit women. It has also created a safe house for young Dalit girls. Through its program called ‘Hope For Life’, the group rescued 200 adolescent girls from illegal labor, providing food and accommodation, and enrolling the girls into school.

In 1996, Anuja Gupta, a survivor of childhood sexual assault, used her MacArthur Foundation Fellowship to establish the Recovering and Healing from Incest (RAHI) foundation. The group’s mission is to “give visibility to the issue of incest and child sexual abuse, build resources within the country for effective prevention and intervention programs and provide women survivors quality support and therapeutic services.”

One of the best ways we can respond to our outrage over what is happening to women and girls in India and in the many other countries where such violence is endemic, is to invest in those women’s rights organizations that have developed approaches that can be scaled and replicated across India in order to both address the violence against women and the patriarchal structure perpetuating it in every form. I’m so glad I’m working for an organization that’s supporting those brave women and men on the ground who dedicate their lives to ensure a better life for women and girls.

SausalitoWoodenBoatI’m writing this missive far away from India here in quiet Sausalito, just over the Golden Gate Bridge to San Francisco. From here I can hear a clinking coming from the boats spread across the waterfront. I fell in love with one of the small wooden boats that has as its name Terrapin. “What a gorgeous name,” I said. “That’s from a Grateful Dead album called Terrapin Station,” Josh replied when he visited recently. “Look, you can see there’s a Grateful Dead insignia on the cabin window – at least it sure does look like it.” As someone attuned to the Grateful Dead, he looked very pleased. In fact, Jerry Garcia reputedly married Deborah Koons in Christ Church Episcopal church in Sausalito, just to extend the local connection.

Near to where I live are the mystical Muir Woods containing old growth coastal redwood forest. On January 9, 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt declared the land a National Monument as the first to be created from land donated by a private individual, William Kent. It was originally suggested that the woods recognize Kent by name but Kent insisted the monument be named after naturalist John Muir, whose environmental campaigns helped to establish the National Park system, and President Roosevelt agreed.

Beyond the Woods, on Muir Beach on New Year’s Day, Josh and I watched little people take wobbly steps on the beach with their parents, alongside the running feet of avid surfers. I felt giddy just being by the sea again and such a rush of joy at seeing those surfers ride the waves. People of many cultures and faiths gathered on the beach in a peaceful welcoming of 2013, and with hope for a lucky year.

Nearby, at sunny Stinson Beach, the blissed out crowd were basking and boogie-boarding, reminding me of Bondi Beach mid-summer. In front of us were a family of Mennonites who laughed and ran around, the women and girls wearing bonnets, the men sans hats. Nearer the sea, two children worked on creating a wondrous sand castle, complete with moat. The girl looked up from her sand-scooping and said to the boy “do you want to be the king of the castle or the dirty rascal?” The boy, gathering water in his sand pail, turned to her and said “Let’s be king and queen of our castle together and not have any dirty rascals.”


Jane Sloane – San Francisco