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More than 4 years later, the women of this country continue to remember one young woman whose death galvanised public feeling against those who attack women – confine them indoors.
I still remember that day when I was getting ready to take classes in the university; just a few minutes were left before I could go out of my hostel room and I thought why not finish sipping the last bit of coffee left in my favourite mug, and hurriedly grabbed my daily newspaper to go along with it. That very moment, a sudden chill ran down my spine as though fear had gripped my shoulders and choked my neck! Yes, it took me a few minutes to recover from the news of the gruesome crime that was perpetrated on the 16th of December 2012 on a young, 23 year old medical student.
I remember discussing this with my students and friends, sharing my anguish, fear and frustration over the incident, and raising concerns over women’s security in the capital. In the evening, within my hostel premises, while walking down the corridors, I saw a few students discussing the news, as by now, news of the horrific act of violence that the girl was subjected to was unraveling through media and had spread like wildfire.
Some of my friends who would go out in the evening to the canteen nearby to grab a quick bite, were now suddenly extremely scared to step out after six in the evening and hence by now, one could say that fear had seized many of our spirits but certainly not for long!
Slowly we would throng the common rooms and tune into prime time. As time passed by, I started hearing slogans outside my hostel premises and saw tiny flames of protest which soon spread to university streets and from there to every nook and corner of Delhi. The voices of protest grew louder and that was the moment I realized that a mass movement of a different sort had begun.
Nirbhaya united many women! Especially university students. Though several cases of violence against women had been reported earlier, this ghastly act stirred our souls, shook the collective conscience and cut open our deepest scars and wounds, as female students and teachers decided to come out in the open to protest, even braving lathis and water canons.
This case did shake the collective conscience, and yet brought to the forefront the insensitivity of law enforcing agencies and how ill equipped our society and security system had been in handling the situation with regard to a woman victim. Despite the rape, and injury to internal organs, there were some self-proclaimed watch-dogs of society and tradition, who debated as to what could have triggered violence/rape. Some highly ignorant, insensitive men commented on the kind of dress that the victim might be wearing or said that just being in the company of a male friend at night was enough self-invitation and provocation for violence. This was typical of our mindset in blaming the victim rather than the perpetrators of violence and did to a great extent reflect the archaic mindset of certain sections of the society.
My blood boiled with anger – little did these self-proclaimed watchdogs know that dress has nothing to do with rape! If dress and time are the prime reasons, why are young children and even for that matter little babies are subjected to gruesome crimes, that too within the confines of four walls and by relatives known to them. ‘Nirbhaya’ which means fearless in Hindi thus became a rallying point for women who questioned such archaic ideology by challenging patriarchy and rape culture in India. Hence Nirbhaya became the symbol of a mass movement that is a movement depicting struggles of women all over.
In the aftermath of the December 2012 outrage, the Justice Verma Committee was formed which to a great extent expanded the definition of rape and went a step further in emphasising bodily integrity and autonomy as well as the need to instill gender justice within the folds of society. It provided amendments to the criminal law so as to provide for speedy justice to the victims and enhanced punishment to the offenders committing sexual assault against women. It also questioned stereotypes within law with regard to female sexuality, rape and rape survivors thus shifting the debate from the concepts of morality and chastity to that of integrity and autonomy. It also questioned the lack of good governance and existence of large scale apathy among the law enforcing agencies with regard to implementation of the rule of law and the need to strengthen the existing laws that would in turn strengthen woman’s security. As a result new laws were passed and six new fast track courts were formed to deliver speedy justice.
Recently, the honourable Supreme Court of India has upheld the Delhi High Court’s death sentence verdict for the perpetrators in this case saying that ‘it was a rarest of rare case and shook the conscience of a nation.’ Justice was done though it could have come a bit sooner; nevertheless, the juvenile who was said to have been the most violent among the perpetrators is still free after serving his sentence as he couldn’t be brought under the ambit of the present law due to his age.
The debate still remains as to what extent laws have been successful in curbing crime against women. Quite recently another case of violence and rape has been reported from Rohtak probably committed by a jilted lover yet again in the most gruesome way. A few months back, a mother-daughter duo became a victim near Bulandshahr, while returning back from a family function. These are some of the reported cases whereas many go unreported.
Many school going girls are opting to drop out of schools due to constant harassment. This certainly reflects the savage mind-set that prevails among men with regard to women and girls. This further proves a major roadblock in the liberation of women even in the 21st century.
Laws alone can never bring in change since the need of the hour is introspection and reforms from within. There is need to create parity within families that would be reflective of gender equality. Can we expect a child with a deprived and a violent past that would have seen his mother being abused and beaten up day and night, violently by a drunkard father, to develop a sense of gender parity when he grows up? Will the child be able to respect women in the future?
I believe that gender disparity is a predominant phenomenon in both villages and urban areas; however they have their challenges and peculiarities. There are still many families where women of the household who work day and night like chattel or slaves are the last ones to eat; some are content with stale morsels of food whereas male members and the male patriarch enjoy the best of nourishment in terms of food and other material benefits, because a woman is supposed to constantly sacrifice herself, be it at the cost of her own health or desires.
Unfortunately we live in a society where women are judged by what they choose to wear, what they eat, where they chose to go and whose company they are in; the consent of a woman is of no value to society. It is an irony that in our society, a young, single and successful woman remains a fodder for gossip and gets measured by the standards of morality that the society has fixed whereas a woman who bears atrocities of domestic violence silently is looked upon as a ‘Devi’. It is this mind-set that we need to come out of and unlearn what patriarchy has instilled in us.
The challenges in urban areas have increased manifold for women. As more and more women are trying to assert their identity, there is an attempt to shut these rising voices through violence, rape and murder of women across the globe, reinstiling the ideology of dominance by the so called ‘stronger sex’.
It’s time to bring in social reforms and generate awareness with regard to the rights of women and rope in not only women but also men as active participants in villages, big and small cities through gender sensitization programmes. The focus also needs to shift from creating literacy to imparting education in the real sense of the term. There is also a need to provide educational and employment opportunity to the youth so as to channelize their energies in a positive way; lack of education and employment opportunities as well as lack of bare minimum standard of living are the main culprits that pave the way for frustration and increasing rates of crime and criminal activities in youth. Thus there is an urgent need for social reforms.
There is also a need to generate awareness with regard to the stigma that surrounds reporting of cases with regard to violence on women. In this regard the role of women’s self-help groups within the social sector who can raise awareness and bring in change is important. The need is to shift the debate from clothes to what can be done with regard to security of woman so that every woman feels safe on the streets, be it at any hour of the day or night.
Tears trickle down my eyes as I write about you, Nirbhaya! Because I shudder to think what physical and emotional pain you must have undergone on that cold December night – how I wish you didn’t have to undergo that horror. Yet Nirbhaya, you united many voices and instilled courage in many women to condemn pervasive acts of violence which paved the way for a landmark judgement. That year, we lost a precious life to a heinous crime. You continue to live on in my memory and that of many of us for the brave girl you were and how you fought to survive till your very last breath. May your soul rest in peace.
Top image credits Ramesh Lalwani, from the protests that occurred in Dec 2012. Used under a Creative Commons license