By Tanya Silverman
Protesters gather in Delhi seeking justice for the young victim of a recent gang-rape episode. Photo by Ramesh Lalwani.
Last Friday in India, four men convicted of raping and murdering a 23-year-old female student were sentenced to death by hanging. The incident, which took place on a bus in New Delhi in December 2012, has gained international media coverage and widespread reaction. Though the exposure of this brutal and shocking occurrence has received ample attention in itself, there has also been focus on sociological foundations and legal realities that exist and need reform.
Aruna Kashyap, the Researcher from the Women’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, has written several articles in regards to this particular rape case and how it relates to over-arching social, political and judicial issues. Kashyap researches topics like violence against women, reproductive health and women’s economic rights at HRW. She has a background in research and litigation in Mumbai, and holds a degree in law from National Law School of India University, Bangalore.
Kashyap shares her thoughts with BTR.
BreakThru Radio: I see you have conducted prior research and that you certainly know a great deal about what’s going on in India. Would you like to comment about how this December 2012 case has gained significant international attention, and how people are just starting to grow aware of what’s going on in India?
Aruna Kashyap: One of the things of interest is the media attention that’s been given to this issue. Part of the reason why these cases get media interest within India and abroad is because India has been very robust in bringing up these issues.
However, there are certain kinds of cases that get more attention than others, for example, those in metropolitan areas versus others in rural areas. Women from tribal areas do not get as much attention as they should.
But having said that, one of the things that I have to point out – because I do women’s rights research in other countries as well – is that rape is a problem many countries and in many cultures, so it’s nothing peculiar to India. Recently, there was another case of a five-year-old girl getting raped in Pakistan, which made big news, not to mention occurrences in Bangladesh.
Rape is not a problem that’s specific to India, but there has been sustained media interest generated. This is in part because the women’s rights movement in India has been mobilizing around this issue and pushing for law reforms and policy reforms.
BTR: From reading your articles that were posted on Human Rights Watch, one discussed the stigma associated with rape survivors and the social attitude around that needs to change. You also write about how women’s roles are defined, and how women’s modesty is enforced, which are areas that must also be reformed. Could you comment on this?
AK: The mindset issue is a larger problem: there are problems around women’s roles, not just rape. If you look at violence against women, it happens in many different settings, even in so-called developed countries. Mindset is definitely a problem which contributes to different forms of violence, and actually changing mindset of an issue is very difficult.
One way that mindsets can be forced to change in countries like India is the way that victims and survivors directly interact with the justice system. For example, if a woman wants to come forward and make a complaint of rape, the police officer who receives this should actually treat her in a sensitive and dignified manner, take that complaint seriously, pursue it, and follow it up with prompt investigation.
Making sure that police officers are accountable – as well as holding them to account when they do not follow up on these complaints or accept pressure for rape victims to revoke their complaints – is an actual way of forcing an attitude change among the people that can catalyze the ways the system works in India.
Another key set of people who could influence how the Indian system operates is doctors. For example, the ways that doctors treat survivors, how sensitively they handle their cases and what kind of counseling is provided.
If there is a focus on training doctors for such psycho-social support – as well as making sure that doctors are held accountable when they don’t treat victims or survivors with dignity – that can also force attitude to change. Pushing for psycho-social support is a significant focus for women’s rights groups in India, in making sure the victim is not bogged down by community pressure, or what a particular sexual assault on her is going to mean in terms of social ramifications or employment.
BTR: So it sounds like many factors need to change, including mindset and the way victims are treated. Would you say that you see things going in that general direction, in regards to how people are reacting to this case, the mobilization of the women’s rights movements, and how the world is becoming aware of violence against women?
AK: On the global map, we can look at what’s happening in India as a form of wake-up call for every single country. India needs to change its systems. Some things have been done, but a lot more needs change in terms of services for victims, accountability, and protection for victims and witnesses who make complaints.
For all that has happened in India and how it is reported, we must realize that such reports aren’t even acknowledged in many other countries that do not have the press or a robust women’s rights movement. There are multiple reasons why these reports don’t emerge from many other countries – which is more worrisome.
One thing to take away is that it’s important to report sensitively about these cases and keep up the pressure, but simultaneously, to have a wake-up call for looking at violence against women, especially sexual assaults across the world. We can assess what we are doing to change attitudes and change systems to make sure that women can report cases without fear, seek care and medical intervention where they need it, and have a right to pursue justice.