In the aftermath of the particularly gruesome rape in the national capital in December, Delhi’s streets spilt over as more and more of its inhabitants joined the numerous vigils and protests that followed it. Many panel discussions were held to discuss it, condemn it and come up with solutions to the horrible crime. Editorials and columns dedicated space to analyse rape, its victims and its perpetrators. Facebook wasn’t far behind. Suddenly, everyone’s profile picture was a big black dot. Status updates were reflective of the collective shock and outrage the whole nation felt. It’s easy to be cynical and dismiss all these reactions as fleeting and ineffective, to slam mainstream media reportage for its selective coverage of this incident, as opposed to the reports (or lack of) of the ones that preceded or followed it. But the anger and pain were real. The fear in our girls was real. The shame the nation felt as we heard about her death was real. Healing, and through it, a solution begins with talking about it. With this in mind, Mitr, on 2nd February, held a discussion on sexual violence. A reassuring number of men turned up for the talk, during the course of which we had six speakers.
‘Everyone has a right to be safe from sexual violence’. Thus Ms. Vidya Reddy began her presentation. She works for Tulir, the Centre for Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse. One of the first points she made was that both boys and girls are equally vulnerable to child sexual abuse. In a survey conducted, an overwhelming 53.22% of children reported to having undergone one or more forms of sexual violence. This could mean anything, from rape, to groping and even voyeurism and exhibitionism. To make matters worse, sexual violence is the least reported crime worldwide. Ms. Reddy compared it to an iceberg-we see only the surface of its ugly existence. A large chunk is buried amid layers of shame and guilt. Out of every 100 children who are abused, only 12 manage to work up the nerve to disclose the incident to an adult. A child has to recount the incident about six times before he/she is believed. Ms. Reddy bust many myths about child sexual abuse. About 95% of sexual offenders are previously acquainted with the child. Most of them do not suffer from any form of mental illness. They don’t look ‘creepy’ or ‘weird’. 10% of sexual offenders are women. Ms. Reddy rightly pointed out that while parents couldn’t be too cautious about their girls, they fail to warn their sons of sexual abuse. Almost no parent talks about sexual abuse to his/her son. Children today live in a much sexualised world. Every other movie poster, song or advertisement around them screams sex. And technology, which plays a huge role in every child’s life, just makes it more complicated than ever. Therefore, it is absolutely imperative for the parents to beat all these factors to it to be the first ones to educate their kids about sex, on how to react right to the wrong advances and to let them know if anything untoward does happen.
The next speaker was Ms. Sheela Jayaprakash, a lawyer who works with the International Foundation for Crime Prevention and Victim Care. ‘Abysmal’ is not the word, in her opinion, to refer to the lawmaker’s mind. She was talking with reference to the Delhi case. Her contempt of the politicians and their response to the crime were equally caustic. However, she acknowledged the efforts of the Verma Panel to bring about justice to the victim. “What we want is bodily integrity, not compensation”, she said, referring to the usual procedure when a rape is reported. Ms. Jayaprakash has spent quite some time talking to police officers as to how to react when a victim of rape reports the crime at the station. Already traumatised, the last thing the victim needs is the insensitivity and humiliating curiosity that greets her at the station. Interestingly, Ms. Jayaprakash was against chemical castration or the death sentence as possible punishments to the perpetrator of the crime. The higher you raise the bar, greater is the pressure for evidence, for proving the crime, she said. Here she also deplored the lack of proper supplies (a rape-kit) at most government hospitals to verify rape. What stops rape, according to her, is the surety of the punishment and swift action on part of the police/court. She recommended imprisonment till natural death as the fit sentence for the rapist.
Prof. Sudarshan, of the Dept. Of Humanities and Sciences, IIT Madras, also termed the Verma panel report as ‘logical’. He spoke about some personal experiences he and his friends had as children and of some people he knew. All acts of sexual violence usually begin with ‘exuding power’, he said. This is something that requires more understanding. Most rapes don’t occur because the rapist was a sex maniac or some such thing. It is because of the entrenched notions of gender in our society. Rape is, above all, a statement of power, of subjugation of woman. Prof. Sudarshan also discussed the importance of ‘cultural sensitisation’- how it is imperative that we know about other cultures, their norms and traditions, to better understand them.
Atul Singh, from the Dept. Of Engineering Design, was the first student speaker. He began by demonstrating the ‘dowry calculator’, an innovative online program that calculates your net worth as groom. Your ‘value’ increases if you are an IIT graduate. And interestingly, it was the brainchild of an IIT alumnus. According to Atul, we live in an “adjusting society” [sic]. Gender discrimination is so ingrained in us that our girls don’t protest against blatant inequality. His solution was to ‘pass on family values’, so that the boys grow into men who respect a woman as an equal individual.
Pushkal Shivam, a second year student at the Humanities and Sciences department, began by confronting ‘the dubious privilege of being a man in India’. Again, he emphasized the age-old notions of gender which are inseparably entwined with our attitudes toward the sexes. Victimisation doesn’t stop with rape- in the drama that follows a reported rape, only more trauma awaits the unfortunate sufferer. He pointed out how many insults in regional languages refer to parts of a woman’s body and that many of the nation’s idols, like Gandhi, were actually misogynists. He made a very pertinent reference to something much closer home- that the most searched term on DC++ was ‘rape’. It earned quite a few laughs. But there is nothing remotely funny about the fact that a considerable section of young educated India considers rape titillating. It is disturbing and frightening. “As a society, we are complicit in violence against girls”, he said. “Sexual violence is a manifestation of the gendered notions of power”. Which explains why the “onus of the crime is on the woman”. Her identity is protected. Her face is covered during court proceedings.
Yashasvini, another student from the same department, spoke about gender discrimination on campus. When girls contest in elections for the Student Council, they not only have to deal with regionalism and power politics, they also face gender issues. Sexual violence, she said, could range from rape, to being groped on a train. But the fact that the girl on the train wasn’t raped doesn’t reduce her anger and humiliation over the groping. It doesn’t make it okay.
A panel discussion followed. The audience seemed genuinely concerned about the safety of women and the attitudes of society toward abuse. There were many questions they wanted answers to, many points they wanted the speakers to clarify. One girl mentioned alcoholism and abuse. Ms. Jayaprakash emphatically stated that alcohol was just an excuse for abuse, and not the cause. One member of the audience voiced his concern over Abhijeet Mukherjee’s controversial remarks following the rape. They reflect the views of not one man, but a sizeable section of our society. It was the girl’s fault. She shouldn’t have been out at night. A society where objectification happens to the extent that women (or specifically their bodies) are used to endorse everything from tiles to chicken cannot be expected to sympathise if a girl was raped but had a short skirt on. Or was drunk. Or was out with male friends. Ms. Jayaprakash said that in such a “well-embedded control system”, things change only when the people do. And for people to change, we need to talk about it, educate them regarding sexual violence. “And as our voices grow in number, I hope we’ll be heard”. Come, let’s talk about rape.