One is far too many. Two begins to boggle the mind. Two in one week—it’s almost impossible to find words. And in fact, the rape and murder of two tiny girls, only four and five years old—one in New Delhi and the other in the Punjab province—are only the most recent, and publicized, instances of rape and child sexual abuse in India. Clearly the unprecedented global outcry over the December rape and murder of a young woman named Jyoti has shined a light on this reality. But light is only a start. We need change. And that change needs to start with the government, the media—and all of us.
Child sexual abuse is increasing: It jumped from 2,113 cases in 2001 to 7,112 in 2012, according to the Asian Centre for Human Rights. Indeed, according to Human Rights Watch, Indian authorities fail to protect children from violence and to adequately respond to abuse when it happens, whether at the hands of strangers or in the children’s own home. Given that an Indian woman is raped every 20 minutes, I would say they are failing to protect the whole country as well.
Some legislative change has begun. In February, Indian president Pranab Mukherjee signed into law harsher penalties for rape and gender-based assault, including imprisonment for acid attacks and (though I cannot condone this) possible death penalty for repeat offenders. And the Protection of Children from Sexual Offenses Act, finally passed last year, formally defined all forms of child sexual abuse as criminal offenses and established other special protections to accelerate the process of bringing perpetrators to justice.
It’s a start, but a flawed one. As the HRW report notes, any legislation will fail without mechanisms that ensure proper reporting and prosecution within a reformed court system. The government needs to adopt—and enforce—strict requirements for police on effective complaint and follow-up procedures, with strong penalties for non-compliance. The PCSOA claims to do just this, but they’ve still got a long way to go in many respects: police violently assaulted a female activist at a rally protesting one of the young girl’s rapes. Others reportedly bribed the family of the victim to not publicize the case.
This all speaks to a problem that far exceeds the reach of effective laws, governance, and court reform. We need a proper response to violence, to be sure, but what we really need is to reduce violence. We need to prevent child sexual abuse and violence against women before they start. And to do that, in a real and permanent way, we need not only better strategies and tactics; we need serious culture change.
We need to reorient our entire approach to this problem, in India and worldwide. We need to understand violence against women and girls not as a “shocking” problem in a faraway place, but as the global pandemic that it is, affecting cities, towns, neighborhoods, and families everywhere. We need to understand violence against women and girls—in all its forms and degrees—as an expression of the status of women, worldwide, as second-class citizens. We need to understand violence against women not as a “women’s issue” but as everyone’s problem to solve. Bottom line, we need to create the political and social will not only to protect women and girls—and not only to empower them, but to fully value them as human beings.
Women have led change on this issue for decades. Male activists have done significant work as well—and we have recently seen them take to the streets from Delhi to Dallas and beyond. But now men of all stripes—from poor communities to places of power—need to be engaged as leaders and allies in demanding an end to discrimination and violence. We must also address the current global crisis of masculinity, in which what it “means” to “be a man” is limited to only certain expressions of strength and power, and by definition devalues women and girls as weak, inferior, even threatening.
The media, including blogs and social media, have already helped maintain critical global attention to events in Delhi and Steubenville (to name only two), have connected important dots between them, and have highlighted the ways in which men in particular are already stepping up for change. Let’s keep it up. In the media—and in fact in all of our own real lives, actions, and priorities—we need to see these events not just as “outrage stories” or crime reports. Together, worldwide, we need to seize the opportunity to examine the deeper issues beneath these events and our shared responsibility to confront them. Only then can we build a safer world for everyone. And if we keep up the momentum that’s already begun, I believe—more deeply than I ever have, in fact—that we can build that world soon.
Mallika Dutt is the president and CEO of Breakthrough, one of today’s most innovative, admired, and effective leaders in cultural transformation. Breakthrough’s most recent campaign, “Ring the Bell: One million men. One million promises,” calls on men around the world to challenge violence against women.