The brutal rape and lynching of two girls in Badaun should shock the collective conscience of all Indians, regardless of their class, caste, religious or ethnic background. But does it?

A spate of legal reforms following the protests over the December 16, 2012 gang rape and murder of a young woman rejected some of the main recommendations of the Justice Verma Committee that were central to combatting sexual violence. These included recognising sexual rights, including the right to sexual autonomy and bodily integrity of women, as well as making marital rape a crime, thus ensuring consent as integral to all sexual relationships. These recommendations were intended to accord women the status of fully human subjects who are entitled to the complete panoply of rights guaranteed under the Constitution.

The failure to embrace these recommendations has continued to allow politicians, regardless of their political affiliations, to view sexual violence apologetically and through a “boys will be boys” laissez-faire attitude, where impunity is more the rule than the exception, and where sexual violence has come to be equated with normal sex. While this attitude continues to place India in the category of one of the most violent countries in the world for women, these moments of egregious violence produce mild convulsions, and then pass into history until the next episode.

Testing tolerance

What is so disconcerting, or should be, is that the levels and expression of violence are moving in the direction of more brutality and viciousness. While the dust settles after the recent elections, with India voting decisively to embrace the neoliberal economic project, a similar decisiveness to ensure women the status of equal and fully respected participants in this future is barely in evidence.

What is disconcerting is that the levels and expression of violence are moving in the direction of more brutality and viciousness

How long will we continue to tolerate police inaction as just a part of the system? When will the level of violence become intolerable, rather than something we have come to associate as a normal part of everyday life? And when will we stop to ask ourselves why women — whether they are those who are aspiring to be a part of India’s new middle class or those who belong to communities that have been historically stigmatised and marginalised — are experiencing what appears to be such macabre and increasing levels of cruelty and torture? The viciousness of the 2012 rape and the lynching of the teenage girls in Katra village in Uttar Pradesh should compel us to confront these questions and consider how we as a society are implicated in producing such levels of ferociousness and sadism. Instead, despite these events, the violence continues unabated — with Uttar Pradesh witnessing further scenes of violence in the past few days, including a brutal attack on the mother of a rape victim and the gang rape of a 17-year-old girl by four men.

The fact that any girl or woman should now have to fear for her life while performing the simplest daily bodily function of going to the fields to relieve herself, speaks of how violence is now part of our new normal. This simple act also speaks of the lack of toilets, and how the provision of adequate sanitation and street lighting are as integral to the safety of women as speedy investigations and the successful prosecutions of the perpetrators. Sexual violence is not just about violence and the criminal law, it is also about meeting basic development needs of the most marginalised communities in our society.

Yet, when a Chief Minister reacts to a journalist’s questions about this deplorable state of affairs with statements such as “Aren’t you safe? You’re not facing any danger, are you? Then why are you worried?” it inspires little confidence that our political establishment will get it right this time. We are left to question whether there is any soul left in a political class that is willing to play the politics of caste, regardless of its cost to the most vulnerable citizens.

One of the young women who were hanged had told her father that she wanted to become a doctor. This aspiration, which is one that millions of young men and women around the country hold dear, was brought to a cruel end. These dreams will remain unfulfilled for millions of women until education in our schools also includes sex education, combined with a determined effort to internalise respect for women — not as wives, mothers, sisters or daughters, but as equal citizens of this country. Otherwise, the normalising process of sexual violence will become, if it hasn’t already, an integral and even acceptable feature of our lives.

An epidemic

Let’s hope that we have not reached the point of no return, where gruesome rapes will remain nothing more than fodder for the media and a spectator sport, and where caste atrocities become an acceptable part of caste-based politics. India is a country that is at war with no one — and yet, the levels of violence that are inflicted on women and that have come to be tolerated seem comparable to levels seen in conflict zones such as Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan.

This is not to say that such violence is only a feature of “the third world.” As a recent study in the European Union revealed, such epidemics are also apparent in countries across Europe, where one in three women has experienced sexual abuse before the age of 15. However this should not serve as a justification, but a cause of alarm as well as a call for action. And that action cannot translate into further aggression, such as the demand for hanging the perpetrators. Sexual violence has reached the level of an epidemic, and we need to shake ourselves out of the apathy or defeatist mentality that continues to place such violence in the category of the ordinary experience of everyday life. By doing so we are all implicated in its normalisation, where women will continue to be nothing more than disposable lives.

(Ratna Kapur is Global Professor of Law, Jindal Global Law School.)

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