When Ruchira Gupta sat down with a group of 22 women in the brothels of Mumbai to speak to them about their rights and understand the dangerous world of sex trafficking across the Indian subcontinent, little could she have imagined that she would be called upon to transmit the lessons she imbibed to senior diplomats and the wider population in faraway United States.
But that was precisely what Ms. Gupta did after she found Apne Aap Women Worldwide, an organisation working to end trafficking. With her efforts being recognised through the Men and Women as Allies Award she received last month at the Healthy Masculinity Summit in Washington, her induction as a teacher of practical insights into preventing violence against women could not be timelier.
In the bruising election campaign which draws to a close in less than 24 hours, the reproductive rights of women in the U.S. took an unprecedented beating, with controversial, and arguably offensive, remarks on “legitimate rape” and a child of rape being a “gift from god”.
Even if these provocative comments are set aside, on the eve of the election it is evident that America’s democratic machine will judge incumbent President Barack Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney not only on their variegated arguments over job-creation but also on the pro-life/pro-choice debate.
And whatever Mr. Romney may argue about the superiority of his economic recovery plan over Mr. Obama’s, he may be on shaky ground at best when it comes to his on-record remarks about women’s reproductive rights.
Starting at the time he took to the podium during the Republican primaries, where each candidate appeared keen to prove his conservative credentials, Mr. Romney said he would be “delighted” to sign a bill overturning the landmark Roe v. Wade case establishing the right of women to choose to have an abortion.
Then the autumn of crude remarks on rape was in full swing. On August 19 Todd Akin, a Republican Congressman and candidate in the U.S. Senate elections in Missouri, said that women victims of what he described as “legitimate rape” rarely got pregnant from rape.
Even as a shocked nation and a worried Republican Party absorbed the import of his remark, Mr. Romney offered a soft response, that it was “inexcusable and, frankly, wrong”, adding that what Akin said was “entirely without merit and he should correct it”.
Activists such as Ms. Gupta argue that this state of affairs in the U.S. “shows how much violence towards women is normalised”, and that women on both sides of the pro-life/pro-choice debate are seen as a collection of reproductive parts. “Women are more than that!” she told The Hindu.
What about Mr. Romney? Did he pay a price for this after injuring the sentiments of the hard right within the Grand Old Party?
Perhaps, for on October 23 he had to decide whether he would take up the defence of another Republican colleague for similar remarks, this time when Richard Mourdock candidate for U.S. Senate from Indiana, said, “I came to realise life is that gift from God that I think even if life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”
Mr. Romney’s response? His campaign team refused to withdraw a television advertisement showing Mr. Romney’s endorsement of Mr. Mourdock, the only Senate candidate that Mr. Romney did endorse.
Although polls have consistently given Mr. Obama a lead over Mr. Romney with women voters, this may have injured Mr. Romney’s position further, especially after he was also ambivalent on whether he would support equal pay for women as manifested in the Obama-supported Lilly Ledbetter Act.
Was Mr. Romney simply wrong-footed, or did his ostensible missteps actually mark a true reflection of his party’s beliefs? We may never know, but what the electorate here does know is that the Republican enunciation of its position on women’s rights is nothing but a pregnant silence, one that may prove deleterious to the entire gender if the wrong person steps into the Oval Office on Wednesday.