President Ram Nath Kovind in his speech on Human Rights Day on 10 December equated human rights with equal rights and dignity for women. What struck me at that time was not just the urgency of his statement but also the very fact that it needed to be said baldly and clearly. In the 21st century, this simple acknowledgement that women’s rights are human rights should not have felt radical. Yet, given the depressingly routine but chilling scale of violence against women and girls — not just in India, but everywhere in the world — somehow, it is.
While rape is the lightening rod that has most often activated the public’s conscience, violence against women and girls starts even before they – we – are born and continues to permeate every aspect of their – our – lives as we grow older.
The exhausting regularity of rape means that it takes ever more brutal and horrific crimes to get the media’s and society’s attention. Some people have become so benumbed that it takes a Hyderabad or an Unnao — where both women were not just raped but also murdered so they would remain silent — to spark public outrage. One rape is one too many, yet rapes happen every day — as many as 90 in India, according to government’s 2017 data.
The hard facts
Every third woman you meet anywhere in the world has suffered some form of physical or sexual violence. Every third woman who has been in a relationship has experienced violent behaviour from their partner. At least 200 million women and girls aged 15-49 in 30 countries, for which data is available, have undergone female genital mutilation — mostly before they turned 15. And more than 63 million women are ‘missing’ in India and 21 million women are ‘unwanted’ on account of sex-selective abortions arising from a preference for boys.
The dispiriting reality is that gender-based violence is an endemic global problem: from the universities in the United States to homes in France, from offices in Australia to streets in north Africa.
It is so deeply embedded in the very marrow of every society that the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women was moved to term the problem a global “emergency”.
Violence against women begins at home, in private life and with families choosing to educate boys more than girls, to feed them better, to gently (and not-so-gently) nudge girls to curtail their movements, thoughts and ambitions. So mundane are these acts that they melt into the wallpaper of ordinary life; they become noticeable only in their sudden absence.
Victim-centred legal systems
In the aftermath of vicious crimes such as in Hyderabad, Unnao, Kathua, there is often a call for a vicious response. As a relative newcomer to India, I recognise the pain, anger and frustration that is driving the demands to castrate, mutilate, hang or lynch people accused of rape-murder crimes. But as Chief Justice Sharad Arvind Bobde recently emphasised, the principles of justice must be upheld and not confused with vengeance.
Upholding these principles also means that governments must take stronger measures to improve access to justice for survivors and remove barriers to reporting. Gaps exist in some rape laws, which exempt rapists from punishment if they marry their victims. Others allow rape to legally take place within marriage. Judicial focus in many legal systems around the world is often not on the actions of the rapist, but on the behaviour and even the sexual history of the women. The violators must be held accountable as well as those officials who fail to implement the law or traumatise victims.
Effective victim-centred legal systems also entail the guarantee of swift and effective responses to distress calls; compassionate and professional policing; well-trained health workers; the safety of victims, their families and witnesses; securing and preserving evidence; faster investigation and prosecution processes; reducing judicial pendency; and, importantly, ending the culture of impunity created by shaming and tarring the women who exercise voice and agency to speak out.
Raising boys to be men
The oft-indifferent institutional responses to violence against women and girls are mere reflections of social responses. In India, after the landmark 2012 Nirbhaya case, an anguished public demanded solutions from its government. It won a law — the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013 — whose severity was designed to deter such ghastly crimes in future. But seven years later, women and girls continue to be targets, because the long and arduous task that falls to families and schools – that of ensuring boys and girls grow up with healthier gender roles, where girls are valued and respected, where women are not objects or property to be terrorised or dominated or controlled – is far from finished.
As the mother of a son, I am keenly aware of how vital it is to raise boys to respect and value girls and women, to have empathy for them, starting with their sisters, cousins, etc. This is where preventive action begins – in our homes, within our families. Data suggests that many of the crimes against women and girls, especially rape, are perpetrated by men they know, such as partners, family members, teachers or colleagues.
Violence against women is violence against humanity
Since violence against women is inextricably linked with their status, we need to invest more in promoting women’s economic, social and political rights. As the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has said, “power is at the heart of the matter… until power is fairly shared, the world will remain out of balance.”
Gender equality is central to peace, to security, to development. When women are at the table, the chance of sustainable peace increases. When women are included in the economy, growth accelerates. In their 2011 book ‘Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty’, this year’s Nobel laureates in economics, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, noted that studies in India on the effect of reservation for women in local government “have made it clear that women leaders almost always make a difference.”
There is more India is doing to make a difference. Using funds allocated after the Nirbhaya case, the Narendra Modi government is setting up women help desks in all police stations, as well as anti-human trafficking units across the country. State governments are taking steps to increase the number of women in law enforcement and allied services, which should encourage more women to report crimes against them. These bold and broad decisions are warmly applauded.
Yet we also know that much more remains to be done, and not just by governments. In nations, businesses, civil society, communities and families – we need a conversation in each of these public and private spaces that starts with a basic fact: women are not responsible for the violence they experience at the hands of men. And that violence against women, all of it, must stop now. Because violence against women is violence against humanity.
The author is UN Resident Coordinator in India. Views are personal.