x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Indian attitudes about women have to change

Will the New Delhi rape case be a catalyst for social change about the status of women in India?

Sentencing arguments began yesterday: should the men convicted of rape and murder in December's headline-making horror in New Delhi be hanged or merely locked away for life?

That question is vital to the four men involved, of course, and to the family of the 23-year-old physiotherapy-student victim, who died on December 29, 13 days after the assault.

But for all of India, the broader issue is far more significant: will this horrifying case be a catalyst for genuine social change in the way India's women and girls are treated? Or, once the story fades, will the same old oppressive reality facing women reassert itself?

Police, it is alleged, initially declined to investigate this case - a telling symptom of the diseased state of women's rights in India, where harassment of all kinds is treated as normal.

And yet the New Delhi case certainly stirred the country, generating broad debate on the status of women. Protests against the abuse of women have proliferated. Many more rapes are being reported now - one every 21 minutes, reported Reuters - almost certainly because women are less and less willing to remain silent.

Authorities have responded. India's courts have a backlog of 30 million cases of all types, a quarter of them more than five years old. But after the New Delhi rape, six trial judges were assigned to a new "fast track" court for rape cases. Further, parliament created new offences for sexual harassment, stalking, and other practices dangerous to women. And the central government set up a 10 billion rupee (Dh575m) fund to find and support ways to improve the dignity and safety of women.

It remains to be seen if police will find the energy and will to pursue all the reports of rape, if the courts can maintain their focus, and if the indignation of women - and most men - will be translated into political will.

In any case, legislation and law enforcement and judicial efficiency, while necessary on this issue, are not sufficient. Rape can be found at the very end of a spectrum of disdain and disrespect for women; India needs to move, collectively, sharply towards the other end of that spectrum.

Changing the attitude of a whole society is no easy task, but in India - as everywhere else - safety and equality for women are the responsibility of the whole society. Government can exhort and punish, but parents and teachers and business and media and others must all move in the same direction.