If sex education is too loaded a term for educators and policy-makers, call it something else — value education, life skills, consent education — but we can no longer ignore how desperately we need it in India’s school curriculums
In 2018, Mini Saxena, a lawyer, moved back to India from the United Kingdom (UK) and learned for the first time just how tough it was to get schools to accept the idea of consent education.
Saxena had volunteered with a consent project in middle and high schools in the UK and wanted to bring the idea to India. It would teach kids why they needed to respect boundaries, and what their protections were under the law when these were crossed.
A 2007 Government of India survey had found that 53% of children, boys as well as girls, had been abused. Surely, such a project would be welcomed.
Not quite, she says: “I approached many schools. Nobody said ‘we can’t do this’ but they kept stalling under various excuses including, ‘we need parental approval’.”
India can solve its rape problem. The question is: Do we want to?
A week after an “encounter” with Telangana police left four rape and murder-accused men dead, it might not be out of place to ask if India has solved its endemic problem of violence against women.
Have men stopped raping women, or killing them, or dousing them with acid, or beating them just because women talked back, didn’t heat dinner adequately or simply because the men felt like it?
Sadly, no. We’ve done the easy part — brought in tough laws, sanctioned fast-track courts, reduced the age of juveniles, and raised the age of consent. Now comes the hard part of mindset change, of demonstrating the will to stamp out violence against women, of realising there are no short-cuts or half-measures. To stamp out rape, you must battle all forms of gender-based violence.
Are we beyond redemption? I believe we are not. The first prescription is to demonstrate political will. In 2014, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi assumed office, he asked parents to rein in their sons. That message needs to be repeated. Often. We need a clear message of zero tolerance to violence.
The rise of fundamentalism, chauvinistic nationalism and macho leadership has made defending women’s rights that much harder, I report from Bangkok at the Beijing +25 review.
Away from the tight-lipped silence of government officials locked in negotiations, some 150 people sat huddled on the floor outside one of the cavernous conference halls of the United Nations (UN) building in Bangkok. The group was plotting and planning steps to take at the Beijing +25 review, a conference held to take stock of where the world stands on promises made on gender equality 25 years ago.
The mood of civil society organizations (CSOs)—meeting on the floor because there wasn’t a room available to them—was combative. After initially being locked out of the negotiation process, they had managed to get in—but only as observers. “Negotiations are never so hush-hush,” said Subhalakshmi Nandi, director, policy analysis, International Centre for Research on Women, Asia. “It’s common practice to have CSOs in the negotiating room.”
Government officials, deadlocked for 24 hours straight, quibbled over the words of an all-important outcome document that would be parsed for their country’s stand on gender rights. Premised on what this document might contain or omit, plans were being hatched on how best to protest: singing, chanting, holding signs, or even a walkout.
The anxiety of 230 CSOs from 35 countries in the Asia-Pacific region had been palpable since their arrival in Bangkok on 24 November for three days of stock-taking.
One in three women worldwide faces violence. We should be angry.
Women have been told to be many things – patient, accommodating, docile even. Now, for the first time on an international platform, they are being told to be angry.
Not that they needed prompting. Anger was in evidence at the regional Beijing +25 conference held this week in Bangkok where UN Women deputy executive director Anita Bhatia told an audience of 500 ministers, policy-makers and civil rights organisers from 35 countries, “Be angry. Ask your government for change.” She was speaking at the launch of 16 days of activism that focus on violence against women after hearing two moving testimonies, the first from actress and model Cindy Bishop and the second from Mumbai-based rape survivor Natasha Noel.
“You cannot remain silent,” Noel said. She spoke of the need to teach children about sexual abuse. Bishop’s anger was sparked by a March 2018 Thai government campaign advising women to dress modestly during the Songkran (new year) festival. She had been assaulted at the festival 23 years ago and said 60% of women who attend are sexually assaulted, regardless of what they wear, but only 25.8% report it. Her post “Don’t tell me how to dress” kicked off Thailand’s MeToo movement.
“Violence against women and girls is ingrained all over the world,” said UN special rapporteur on violence Dubravka Simonovic. “Why aren’t we talking about it as an emergency?”
Women who speak up against sexual assault will almost always sought to be silenced by men who are backed by institutional support.
When classics professor Mary Beard tells the story of Tereus who, in Greek mythology, cuts off the tongue of Philomena after raping her, it is to point to a particularly grisly example of how women were silenced in ancient culture.
That culture persists. Evidence lies in a Delhi hospital where the Unnao rape survivor and her lawyer remain on life support after the car they were travelling in was crushed by a truck, killing two other women in it.
In Kerala, the Franciscan Clarist Congregation of the Catholic Church has expelled Lucy Kallappura, one of the five nuns who led the protest against bishop Franco Mulakkal, on bail on charges of raping a fellow nun. Sister Lucy’s sins? Publishing poems and learning to drive. The other four nuns have already been transferred.
From Unnao to Wayanad, the lesson is clear. Women who speak up against sexual assault are sought to be silenced by men who are backed by institutional support.
In a country where 52% of women say it’s ok to be beaten by a husband and one in three experience violence at the hands of a partner, the views of Kabir Singh director, Sandeep Reddy Vanga that physical violence is a sign of true love are dangerous, I write in my Hindustan Times column.
In a country where 52% of women believe it is okay to be beaten by their husbands, the views of Sandeep Reddy Vanga, director Kabir Singh, apparently endorsing physical violence as a sign of love, are deeply disturbing.
“When you are deeply in love … if you don’t have the liberty of slapping each other, then I don’t see anything there,” Vanga told Anupama Chopra in an interview.
I am not sure the one in three married women who have experienced physical violence – slapping, choking, punching and burning — by their husbands, according to the National Family Health Survey 4, would agree. In the first 10 years since the Domestic Violence Act came into force in 2006, over 10 lakh cases of domestic violence have been registered. And, yet, domestic violence remains vastly underreported primarily because of the victim’s relationship with a husband or a partner.
Mainstream Hindi cinema has not been known for its affirmative messages of women’s empowerment. A 2017 study on gender stereotyping by Nishtha Madaan and others shows that the percentage of female-centric films has gone up only marginally since the 1970s and remains in the low teens. Certainly, Kabir Singh’s female lead played by Kiara Advani is no more vacuous than the character played by Sonakshi Sinha who says in Dabangg: “Thappad se darr nahin lagta saab, pyaar se lagta hai.” (I’m not scared of your slap, but of your love).
When the religion of the perpetrators becomes more important than the crime of rape itself, then you know you are witnessing a civilisational breakdown.
To find evidence of the epidemic of violence against young girls and women gripping India, you have only to flick through your newspaper.
In the recent past: Two minor sisters, 13 and 15, gang-raped at gunpoint in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh (UP). In Singrauli district, Madhya Pradesh, an eight-year-old gang-raped by two boys aged 15 and 16. Also in Madhya Pradesh, near Bhopal, a 10-year-old girl first murdered, then raped and sodomised.
These are a fraction of the horror stories in a country where, according to National Crime Records Bureau data for 2016, not updated since, 19,764 rape cases were registered — an 82% jump in rape cases from the preceding year, with the worst rise in UP where figures have trebled. These are, of course, reported cases in a country where, according to Mint, 99% of sexual assault goes unreported.
Nuh in Haryana is India’s most backward district. It is also where Rakbar Khan and Pehlu Khan were lynched on suspicions of cattle theft. I travel to Nuh to meet their families.
Lying on a string cot beneath a row of pale green prayer beads that hangs from the wall, Asmeena Khan holds up a frail hand and says softly, “Please pray for me.”
There is no electricity and Asmeena cannot summon the strength to wave away the flies that settle on her face. She has been bedridden since being in a car accident four months ago. Her brother says the doctors have said she is paralysed from the waist down, and will never walk again.
Asmeena is the widow of Rakbar Khan, the dairy farmer who was killed by cow vigilantes on the night of July 20, 2018. After the murder of 28-year-old Rakbar, Asmeena, who has never been to school and is unsure even of her age, was left to raise her seven children. The eldest, 14-year-old Saahila, dropped out of school to help her mother with household chores and add to the family income by working as a daily wage labourer; four younger children were enrolled at a residential school in Aligarh run by a charitable society. The youngest two, aged six and three, have stayed with their mother in Tapkan village in Haryana’s Nuh district.
When the accident happened. Asmeena was on her way to visit her children in Aligarh in a taxi. A truck collided with the car she was in. The driver and a 19-year-old niece accompanying Asmeena were killed. Asmeena was first taken to the medical college in Nuh and then referred to a hospital in New Delhi, as her injuries were serious.
Bedridden and bereft
Four months later, she still lies on a cot in her parent’s home. Rakbar’s parents have refused to take her in, says her brother Irfan. But, reasons Asmeena, “Rakbar’s father is an old man who barely makes ends meet by keeping a few goats. Rakbar’s brothers add to his income, but he can barely feed himself.”
Asmeena got married when she was about 13. Three of her brothers work as drivers, two work in a poultry farm, and the youngest has dropped out of school and is learning to repair tyre punctures. Seventeen family members live in the two-room house at Tapkan. Two married sisters are visiting; they have come to find work as daily wage labourers, harvesting the ripened wheat in Nuh’s farms.
The world’s longest and largest march by survivors of rape and sexual assault covering 24 states over 10,000 km in India seeks to break the silence and stigma around rape. My Hindustan Times column.
Y’s husband beat her senseless when he found out that she had been raped by three men in the fields where she had been working. Then he threw her out of the house and told her to go back to her parents. “I had done nothing wrong. I was just trying to earn a living,” she says.
When M managed to escape from three male captors, who told her they had bought her for Rs 2 lakh, her family barred her from seeing her kids. That was in 2016.
Just two out of an estimated 15,000 women and men who have taken part in what is perhaps the world’s largest and longest march of rape survivors, Y and M are finally at the end of a two-month, 10,000 km journey covering 200 districts in 24 states. Along the way, they have met police, judges, doctors, administrators, students, lawyers, teachers. They want to change the way you see them. They want to end the silence that continues to shroud survivors of sexual assault.
A new book by my friend and college room-mate Sohaila Abdulali explores the idea that victims of sexual violence are not broken beings. Awful as it is, rape is survivable, and those who have been raped are deserving and capable of happiness again.
I don’t remember the precise moment when my then college roommate, Sohaila Abdulali, told me about being gangraped when she was 17. It was just an incontestable fact of her life: she was from Mumbai, she loved to dance, her parents grew orchids, she had been raped.
This is not to imply that being raped was not a big deal. It was. If I remember correctly, this is how she explained it. “It’s like being run over by a bus and getting terribly hurt. You might never fully recover from your injuries. But you go on living. You can be happy again.”
In the three decades that Sohaila has remained my friend, she has never let that single event define her life, even though it is an inseparable part of who she is. Three years after being raped and while writing her undergraduate thesis on rape in India, she created a minor stir by writing about her own experience for Manushi. Nobody, at least not in India, had ever written about being raped. Nobody had run such an article with their photograph.