India’s rape epidemic has recently come into full and grotesque view. Nirbhaya’s story has simply been repeated within just 8 months. And looking at the statistics it seems it could happen again, and again and again…. WHY?? Simply because too many people in authority continue to blame the victim rather than punishing the accused. Until there is fundamental shift in these attitudes such stories will simply repeat.
In 2012 alone there were over 635 reported rapes in Delhi – and only one person was convicted. Over 24,000 women are raped annually in India, and the real total is likely over 200,000 given that the vast majority of attacks go unreported. Rape is rampant, and the fastest growing serious crime, with an increase of 875% in the last four decades. The media, social groups, women activists, and the youth of the country came up with many protests, strikes and various other shows of anger but these laudable initiatives are unlikely to cure the rape epidemic.
A more profound and comprehensive strategy is needed. Experts on gender-based violence agree that it thrives in a culture of misogyny. Prevailing cultural attitudes among offenders and their peer groups, law enforcement and other authorities, and communities and victims’ families play a central role in enabling and permitting rape and many other crimes against women to be carried out so frequently and with impunity.
What our country needs today is a mass public education program on this serious issue. There is extensive evidence that such programs can have a significant impact on popular cultural attitudes and behavior. Few examples are:
· Between 2009 and 2011, a ramped-up public education campaign played an essential role in India’s eradication of polio.
· India’s Bell Bajao campaign achieved dramatic increase in awareness of laws and discussion on domestic violence, as well as women’s willingness to seek legal help.
· The social awareness program on the use of condoms has helped in reducing the spread of AIDS and other STDs.
· The government of California reduced cigarette sales by over 230 million packs in just two years with a massive public education campaign.
These examples and many others show that where there is the will, resources and competence to do the job well, public education can be a game-changer for social problems that often prove resistance to other methods.
Challenging the impunity around rape is crucial. But while India must improve criminal laws and law enforcement, this is not enough to stem the crisis. It is estimated that as many as 90% of rape cases go unreported, putting the actual number of attacks in India well above 200,000 per year or more. Facing such a crisis of under reporting, prevention must be part of the solution – with the fire treated at source rather than in the courts. While journalists and politicians talk tough on jail terms and punishment, the most effective and direct way to deal with this cancer is a mass public education campaign.
In a survey conducted by the Hindustan Times shortly after the Delhi gang rape, 92% of male respondents said some or all of their friends had harassed women in public spaces, and despite the gruesome rape the capital had just witnessed, 65% of the male respondents said the problem of sexual harassment was exaggerated.
These statistics show how prevalent these attitudes have become. Only by launching campaigns that shift mindsets and change the overall environment can new behavioral norms be created. Such a campaign could stop citizens from committing acts of sexual violence themselves, stop them tolerating this behavior in others, make them more likely to intervene when they encounter it and support such interventions by others. Ordinary citizens are already coming together online to pledge what they will do to change their individual behavior, but widespread cultural change requires a concerted and society-wide effort, led and funded by the government. Only such a commitment can scale the individual commitments and momentum to the level of a nationwide shift.
Mass public education and advertising campaigns have been statistically proven to overcome social barriers and change entrenched beliefs that many deemed unchangeable. Only a government-led mass education campaign will create an India safe for women. The pervasiveness of negative attitudes towards women that underlie the terrible problem of widespread sexual assault and rape in India cannot be reduced by stricter laws and tougher enforcement alone – these do not challenge the root cause of the problem. A mass nationwide education campaign that understands the social causes of this violence, tackles misogynistic views head-on, and teaches Indian youth the value of all girls and women in Indian society is the key to reducing the epidemic of sexual violence.
To end the war on women, the government must now prioritize this policy. Only by taking the lead to champion and resource this campaign can the Indian government ensure it reaches the country’s schools, fills the nation’s airwaves, and ultimately results in a deep-seated shift in social attitudes towards violence against women. We have never seen so many people out in the streets for women’s rights. There has never been such an extraordinary moment of opportunity, or such an overwhelming public mandate for bold action. If not now, when??