A few days ago, I was at a security awareness training meant solely for women. It focused on the threats faced by women. The whole training was very informative and exciting but what was not very exciting was seeing my country, India, lead most lists, in different aspects, as one of the most unsafe places for women.
A survey conducted by ActionAid UK indicated that 4 out of 5 women in India experience some form of sexual harassment in their lives. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) reports an increase in the rate of violent crimes against women since 2009. According to an often quoted statistics based on NCRB reports, over 848 Indian women are harassed, raped or killed per day. In 2013, over 34,000 women were raped. The numbers have been on the increase, not taking into account many of the cases that go unreported.
The legal definitions of sexual harassment, sexual violence, and sexual assault vary by jurisdiction. But what remains common to all three, despite different social settings is that it is 'unwelcome' and 'detrimental to the interest and well-being' of an individual.
Though women in the age group of 18-35 are generally considered victims of different forms of sexual abuses, there seems to be no clearly defined age group. From babies who are a few months old to women who are senior citizens, anyone can be a victim.
Where do we, as a country, go wrong?
I was only looking - It's called ogling.
Human beings are designed to appreciate aesthetically pleasing subjects. This explains our love for everything beautiful (though this can be subjective or socially influenced). If you like something, you look at it. But if you like someone, you look and then look away. If you keep on staring amorously, you have stopped looking and now you are ogling. This makes the onlooker a creep and the one looked upon terribly uncomfortable.
Catcalling is a compliment - Not.
Being called names, adjectives, phrases with or without sexual innuendo as a woman or group of women passes by is not a compliment. There is no story where a woman felt acknowledged for her accomplishments because a strange man called out to her from across the street.
Stalking is a way of professing love - Not.
Our movie industries and soaps portray and extol heroes who are persistent. Ones who stalk, chase and finally 'conquer' the unwilling heroines who eventually become smitten with the male protagonist's devotion. In real life, it ends in a restraining order or direct intervention by the cyber security officials.
Stalking is an intentional harassment of an individual. Whether physical or cyber, stalking is not a heroic act. In fact, it is punishable by law under Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013.
She asked for it - No one asks for it unless they actually, vocally, do.
A shorter skirt, a thinner strap, absence of sleeves, the transparency of the material - none of these is an extended invitation for molestation or sexual violation. Wearing lesser clothes does not signify an open invitation for sexual violation. Unless a woman explicitly expresses an interest and vocally states consent for sexual intercourse, she has not asked to have sex with anyone. An extra inch on a skirt never prevents a rape. The same premise applies to the time of the day as well. Any woman who roams the streets of the Indian sub-continent post 18:00 hrs is not asking for sex unless she explicitly and vocally does ask. And it is not anyone's prerogative to assume otherwise.
As mentioned before, our media plays a crucial role in objectifying women. Movies and soaps showcase scenarios of men overpowering women. Teaching an assertive woman a lesson by forcing himself upon her is a common scene that is often applauded. All our movie industries speak the same language when it comes to this form of 'heroism'. The heroine who is annoying, arrogant, and assertive being shut down by a 'hero' who forcibly kisses her is an action common in productions from all the regional film industries. To make matters worse, this is followed by the heroine falling in love with the hero.
Visual media being quite an influential source in our society, the antics of the characters are often emulated with catastrophic results. It is important that visual media with its potential for wide outreach must reconsider and reformulate what is decided to be showcased and set the record straight.
When 12-year-old girls and boys are taken to separate classrooms for the (not at all comprehensible) classes on periods and sex, it is important to include sexual consent as an essential section of the syllabus and explain the same clearly without euphemisms.
Consent essentially means accord. In simple terms, it means saying 'yes' willingly and voluntarily. Parents have an important role in teaching their children from a young age about consent. It can start with something as simple as teaching a young person that it is important to ask his/her friend before holding hands. And build on the basics as the individual grows.
While I have drawn out a few aspects here, the list of harmful practices that affect the safety of women is quite a long one. Marital rapes, dowry deaths, acid attacks - the types of sex and gender-based violence in India are many. Besides the execution of existing laws, speeding up the judicial processes, and harsher punishments for violators, we need to educate young men and women to respect each other and treat each other as equals. As long as the structural barriers remain in place, no forms or punishments for the violators or restrictions imposed upon potential victims will prevent the crimes from happening.
P.S - Many of the aspects touched upon above are applicable universally. I also want to clarify that by universal standards men are not always perpetrators and women not always victims. Women can be perpetrators and men victims, or men themselves can be victimised by men. But this piece focuses especially on women as the rate of incidence of harassment or violation experienced by women in India is appalling and far outnumbers those experienced by men.