One year ago, Jyoti Singh Pandey—known in India as Nirbhaya, or “Without Fear”—was brutally raped and murdered in an unimaginable act of violence in a New Delhi neighborhood. Only months before, Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani student and activist, was shot by the Taliban—and, thankfully, survived.
Malala is a teenager fighting for the right of education for girls in Swat Valley. Jyoti was a young urban woman studying to be a physiotherapist. But both attacks drew the world’s attention to the fact that women —women from Delhi to Mingora, not to mention Maryville, Missouri, and beyond — are still viewed as dispensable, even dangerous, undeserving of full human rights.
One year later, what has changed?
It is heartening that the Nirbhaya case led to the establishment of the Justice Verma commission and the strengthening of outdated laws to better project women’s rights. Under similar provisions, crimes such as those that Tarun Tejpal is accused of—for example—are tantamount to rape and punishable. Indeed, more cases of sexual violence are being reported rather than, presumably, silenced, scuttled, or quietly settled. However, crime statistics and prosecution rates show that still, most often, such crimes go unnoticed, unreported, absorbed into the culture of “that’s the way things are.” As seen in Tejpal’s case, the culture that privileges men’s status over women’s allegations is alive and well—and no doubt dissuading women from seeking justice.
Some changes are evident, other crucial factors are unchanged. The number of complaints registered with the police—the first information reports on rape rose by nearly 3 percent in 2012, according to a report recently released by India’s National Crime Records Bureau.The number of cases that were charge-sheeted—documented as a crime—was high at 95 percent. However, the sad truth is fewer than 15 percent of rape cases came to trial in 2012, which means more than 85 percent of cases are still awaiting trial.
Violence against women remains the most widespread—and most socially tolerated— human-rights abuse. Behaviors such as catcalling, taunting and grabbing women in public arise from, and perpetuate, limited and damaging notions of masculinity that define “real” men through expressions of power and dominance, especially over women. In this way, even everyday, “minor” assaults and inequities are part of the continuum that also includes rape, domestic abuse, and attacks on women and girls like Malala and the named and unnamed Nirbhayas of India.
This culture is enabled, not only by the (mostly) men committing these acts. It’s enabled by the men who tacitly condone it by not challenging it. That’s why to truly end violence against women, and change the culture that fuels it, men must stand alongside us. I’m glad to say many of them are.
The Nirbhaya case sparked an unprecedented wave of activism. Most significantly, men and women alike took to the streets, horrified by the crime and the culture that allowed it to happen. The massive numbers of men participating and advocating for change proved their growing—and crucial—role as leaders and partners in ending violence against women in a traditionally patriarchal Indian society.
Especially when men are our partners, dramatic change can happen.
Consider Malala’s father, Ziauddin Yousafzai. Ziauddin has consistently supported his daughter’s—and other girls’—right to education in Pakistan, despite threats from the Taliban. And he hasn’t done that for any kind of prize or fame, but because he believes men do not have the right to dominate women. He believes in the inherent right of girls. His support has helped give Malala an international stage for her activism.
When we began our “Nation Against Early Marriage” in India, where 25,000 girls are married off each day, we found another inspiring example. In the state of Jharkhand, where early marriage is prevalent, one father is no longer staying silent. Like other fathers, he married off his daughter Kamla (not her real name) when she was 12 or 13. But unlike other fathers, when she suffered abuse and violence by her husband—as so many young brides do—he brought her home. Now, he pressures other men in his village not to send their daughters into early marriage.
When boys and men stop staying silent and start holding their peers accountable, change happens.
I’m heartened by the men who are already doing this—Sir Patrick Stewart, Sir Richard Branson, Alan Smith and countless other boys and men across the globe. These men have stepped out of the shadows to expose and stop harmful behavior. These men know violence against women doesn’t continue because most men are violent. It continues simply because far too many men are silent.
As we remember Nirbhaya on the first anniversary of her death, we must continue to learn from what happened and act—together—for change. We must remember that for every Nirbhaya, there are countless girls and women across India and beyond whose names do not become symbols of courage or justice. We must remember that justice for her means justice for all of them. We must remember that what killed Nirbhaya was not simply a group of horrifically misguided individuals, but a culture with scant respect for girls and women or concern for abuses against them. May Jyoti be the light that leads us to a new world, one in which girls and women are valued and and boys and men are not violent—or silent.