x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

India opens up to an unbearable dialogue

Resolving the issue of sexual assault is a test of India as a society, because the only solution is a comprehensive change of attitude on many levels.

When Mahatma Gandhi observed that a country's greatness should be measured by the way it treats its most vulnerable, he could have been talking about the debate over sexual violence that is causing ructions in his homeland. There is no question that India is a more equitable place for women than it was in Gandhi's time. Indira Gandhi's total of 15 years as head of state, for example, remains the longest by a female political leader anywhere in the world, while gender equality and a dowry ban have been enshrined in Indian law since the 1960s.

But nobody can fail to be concerned about the continuing high levels of sexual violence against women in the country, as exemplified by last month's gang rape of a 22-year-old photojournalist in Mumbai or the murder and gang rape of a young New Delhi student last December.

The only underage defendant of the six alleged attackers in the Delhi case has been sentenced to the maximum penalty for rape and murder by a juvenile: three years in a secure reform facility. A decision on four of the others is expected later this month. The driver of the bus on which the attack took place committed suicide earlier this year.

Sadly, the problem goes far deeper than such high-profile attacks. The rate of sexual violence in India is high and reportedly doubled between 1990 and 2008. The conviction rate in the courts is as low as 10 per cent - less than half the rate in developed nations - and this does not count the many sexual assaults that are never officially reported.

This is a test of India as a society because the only solution is a comprehensive change of attitude on many levels, both in the general populace and also into the procedures of the police force and the courts.

The vast majority of Indian men rightly abhor violence of any kind against women but too many see as harmless the low-grade sexual harassment that has long been trivialised as "Eve teasing".

No society is perfect in this regard, including the UAE, where laws against unmarried sex mean there is still a reluctance for some rape complainants to go to the police. But the sheer horror of this case has prompted India into a stark reassessment of its attitudes.

This kind of introspection is rarely comfortable but is exactly the kind of national conversation every country has to participate in to become a place where all its citizens can feel safe.