India, the birthplace of four major religions, is a nation unsurpassed for the richness of its history and culture. Mahatma Ghandi’s famous non-violent resistance movement resulted in Indian autonomy from the British Empire in 1947, precipitating a wave of independence movements across the developing world. Today, India is the world’s largest democracy, possesses the third largest economy in the world, and in November it will send a spacecraft to orbit Mars.
Yet the South Asian giant remains fraught with problems. Internationally, there is the simmering conflict with neighbour Pakistan over the disputed Kashmir border region. Four wars have been fought over the territory since independence, minor skirmishes kill hundreds each year and now that both countries are nuclear powers, the fear of war is a perpetual shadow to India’s bright economic fortunes. And with American forces soon to pull out of neighbouring Afghanistan, there are multiple reasons to expect a deterioration in relations between the rival nations.
Domestically, there is an equally dark underbelly to India’s progress. The ‘caste’ system is infamous for its discrimination against the lower classes, but ever since the brutal gang rape and murder of a young woman on a Delhi bus last December, it has been the status of women in Indian society that has been grabbing headlines.
While the incident which sparked a global outcry was exceptional in its brutality, it has since become clear that sexual harassment and violence is appallingly widespread, even normal, in India and much of Asia. A recent Lancet study, whilst criticised for being unrepresentative, found the shocking result that one in four men surveyed across the Asia-Pacific region admitted to having raped a stranger or partner, illustrating just how deeply entrenched sexual violence has become.
Part of the problem is impunity, in that the police frequently don’t investigate rape cases, nearly 25,000 of which were reported in 2011 (which means a new case every 20 minutes). However, the high-profile nature of this case has led to the prosecution, conviction and sentencing to death of the four Delhi attackers. Whilst the sentence has been criticised as vengeance rather than justice, there is hope that the case is leading to a change in attitudes. In March, the government toughened laws on sexual crimes; women are speaking out about their experiences of violence; and the passing of sentences has not reduced public demand for further reform.
ChildFund hopes that such reform is swift and effective, to bring to Indian women the security that most of us take for granted. The protection of mothers and children will continue to be a priority for us in our work in India, as well as the alleviation of the brutal poverty which is another contributing factor to gender violence. Children whose childhoods are dominated by poverty and violence are more likely to perpetrate or experience violence in adulthood. If you want to help avert this terrible cycle, you can sponsor a child in India. Even easier, you can sign our petition to make reducing violence against children a global priority, holding all governments – including that of India – to account in protecting their most vulnerable citizens.
The current situation for women in India is both tragic and disgraceful. But mere sympathy or outrage will not change it. There is hope for a brighter future – but we need to act to make it a reality.
As India’s own national hero famously said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”