A society that is unable to respect, protect and nurture its women and children loses its moral moorings and runs adrift.

In a survey conducted by Thomson Reuters’ TrustLaw Women, a hub of legal information and legal support for women’s rights, India ranks with Afghanistan, Congo and Somalia as one of the most dangerous place for women.

A casual scan of the front page of any major Indian newspaper assaults the reader with shocking incidents of violence against women and children. The recent YouTube video of a teenage girl being molested by a mob in Guwahati caused a national outcry. In a country where women and girls are traditionally revered as the Mother and the Goddess, this is simply unacceptable. A society that is unable to respect, protect and nurture its women and children loses its moral moorings and runs adrift. This problem cannot be solved by the government alone but by a national awakening involving the entire country and civil society.

While women in India generally face numerous disadvantages — poor health indicators, lower literacy rates, lower income levels, poor female to male ratio due to sex-selective abortions and female infanticide, to list a few — the last few years have witnessed some astonishing acts of violence against women and children. Last year, 24,206 cases of rape were registered in police stations across India. Acts of violence registered against women in 2010 total around 2,13,585. Swayam, a Kolkata-based NGO, asserts that between 2005 and 2009, when the overall crime rate rose by 16%, crimes against women rose by 31%. Conviction on rape charges is also likely to be extremely low.

This social malaise needs to be treated as a national security issue at the highest levels of government, both at the Centre and in States. A recent letter signed by various prominent citizens and activists was sent to the Prime Minister in May 2012. The letter drew his attention to various actions that need to be taken to protect and care for women and children who have been sexually and physically abused and to hold the police accountable.

An important change that can be implemented is to make a start in schools. Mandatory child and women’s rights education should be included in the curriculum and the spotlight put on violence against women and children in all its forms. Instead of staying away from such taboo topics, teachers should deal with them in the classroom. A nationwide teachers training programme must be introduced to ensure that the subject is properly taught.

Three-tier approach

Prosecution and strict legal action are likely to provide an important deterrent. This could be a three-tier approach. First, it is important to increase reporting of rape and assault. Across the world, rape is a generally underreported crime; this is all the more true in India. It is essential that women and children be educated on their rights on reporting of a violent act against them through an active social media campaign.

Second, it is absolutely vital that law enforcers are trained to react swiftly and with sensitivity to women and children who have been harassed, assaulted or raped. Sensitivity training and knowledge of the rights of women and children are another vital need and must be made mandatory for all law enforcement agencies.

Third, punishments need to be exemplary and widely covered in the media. There has to be a “shock and awe” campaign of zero tolerance of sex offenders and those who kill and violate women and children. Fast track courts should be established to ensure that the law is surgical and unrelenting in pursuing and ensuring that such offenders face the full force of justice, regardless of their rank and station.

Finally, a nationwide campaign is needed to reignite India’s core values and traditions that respect and nurture women and children. This can only be borne out of consensus in society. Awareness amongst men of the scope of this issue is critical. Men who turn a blind eye to such brutal acts in their own neighbourhoods, communities and families are just as culpable as those that perpetrate these acts. Action from courts and police will not suffice if the community remains defiantly opposed to change.

So the biggest question remains: how exactly to engage the entire populace to initiate a change in mindset? How can a national conversation on this subject be leveraged into national action?

(These are personal views of the author and do not in any way reflect that of the organisation he serves or has served in the past. Siddharth Chatterjee was a Major in the Indian Army. His email ID is sidc@alumni.princeton.edu)

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