Rape one of many crimes against women

A society might have been encountering wrongs of various kinds for a long time and anger might have been simmering against them in the public psyche without resulting in remedial action. But one particular incident may become a turning point, a rallying case that drives people to address the issue. Such was the case of the 23-year-old gang rape victim. There is a point of inflection in society when it is jolted out of its indifference and apathy towards an injustice.
An example illustrates this point. For a long time non-whites were being disallowed in train compartments meant for whites during the period of apartheid in South Africa. Mahatma Gandhi was aware of this and had not been moved to act against it. But when, despite having a first class ticket, he was thrown out of a train at a South African railway station in 1893 for refusing to move from a first class carriage to the van compartment at the end of the train, a steely resolve was forged in him to fight racial discrimination against Indians in South Africa.

The 23-year-old gang rape victim’s case has made the nation think about steps to prevent such incidents in the future. That takes us to the issue of punishing the guilty in ways that deter others from committing such crimes.

 It is shocking that even in the present social environment of zero tolerance to crimes against women, when the air is charged with anger and retribution against rapists, many cases of rape have occurred in different parts of India. The nation-wide activism and anger against rape and demands for the severest punishment for rapists does not seem to be working. Rapists are going ahead with their inhuman designs even when the whole country is against them.

There have been talks of reforming the attitude and outlook of men towards women. Many sections of Indian society have a sick, degraded way of looking at women. Rape is just one of the crimes against women. In the form of foeticide and female infanticide, the attack on women and girls starts before or just after they are born. During their upbringing, they are discriminated against in many families in terms of being deprived of proper nourishment, care, education and opportunities for growth. Many households consider them a liability. At many public places and even in offices, they are teased, offended and harassed.

It has been realised after the 23-year-old gang rape victim’s case that society needs to change its attitude towards women and have regard and respect for them. But this transformation is very difficult to achieve for it can happen only with a change of heart and mind. The unhealthy approach towards women has been present in India for ages. It is not just men whose mentality concerning women is morbid to various degrees.

Over centuries, women too have been trained into believing the version men have about them. And this version says that women are inferior to men in every way and can be owned by men as objects. Change in this social scenario has come over the decades and things have improved for women at all places where discrimination against them can take place—homes, schools, colleges, markets, thoroughfares, workplaces.

But the change in mindset of both men and women that ensures dignity, honour and self-respect for women will take a lot of time to happen and be a slow process.

So if harsh punishment for crimes like rape does not act as a deterrent and the social change that will end crimes against women will happen slowly and take a long time, how are women and girls to be prevented from being abused and attacked by men? All the protests and voices against rape and other crimes targeting women which have dominated the media and the mindspace of people would not serve their purpose if a tangible headway is not made in making women safer and our society have a healthier approach towards them.

It is difficult to think of means and methods that would end all kinds of ill treatment of women. The momentum created by the agitation over the gang rape case should be harnessed to yield positive action that makes India a better place for women.

Laws serve to direct society on a fair and just path but can prove futile if people don’t realise themselves what wrong and right are and don’t have the sense and desire to stick to right and shun wrong. At present, it is alarming that this discrimination between wrong and right itself is flawed in the case of the attitude of many sections of society towards women.

The external check and coercion of the law cannot be fruitful unless people get their ideas right about the way women should be treated. That’s a tough call and goes much beyond the present activism on the issue of women’s status in society.

The heightened pitch of the people crying for justice for women will sooner or later climax and then fade out. If it has to be of real value, it must begin the massive task of changing the heart and mind of India to make it a healthy and happy place for women.

Amit Shekhar is a senior journalist and columnist
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