Education: the only way to cure India’s rape epidemic


Justice JS Verma’s report on India’s appalling rape epidemic has rightly slammed the government and police for a series of “shocking failures”. The tough new measures he recommends to bring rapists to justice are an important step forward. We must end impunity for those who attack women and girls; we need stricter laws and we need them properly enforced.

But cleaning up the justice system is only one piece of the puzzle.

The key to ending this epidemic across India is a plan to stop the rot at its root, rather than just focusing on how to deal with victims once they have been assaulted. As Justice Verma has pointed out, the sexual harassment endemic in India – the cat-calling, groping and stalking of women – is only the “first step” in a scale that slides up towards violent sexual assault. Such harassment, and its widespread acceptance, is a symptom of a much deadlier cancer, deeply ingrained in the culture: one which will only be cured with a massive, well-funded, government-led education campaign to transform people’s attitudes towards women and girls.

Rape is the fastest growing crime in India – leaping up by 875 percent since records began 40 years ago. In 2011, 65 percent of men surveyed said they thought it was okay to beat a woman; last month, after the brutal gang rape, a survey showed that 92 percent of men in Delhi knew someone who had harassed or sexually assaulted a woman. And little wonder, when a lawyer suggests that the young woman raped, tortured and left for dead on a Delhi bus would not have been attacked if she were more virtuous; when an education minister believes the solution to sexual crime is for girls to wear overcoats; and when even a female scientist blames the victim for fighting back. “Had the girl simply surrendered (and not resisted) when surrounded by six men,” Dr Anita Shukla ventured, “she would not have lost her intestine.”

Such regressive views will not be transformed by stronger laws alone. To overturn these attitudes and stop women feeling under siege every time they leave their homes, India needs a mindset revolution. Today, Avaaz released a report with several case studies showing that, where there is leadership, will, resources and competence, public education can be a game-changer for cultural attitudes and behaviour.

So, the good news is there is a way to do it, and we know it can work. Huge education and awareness drives have slashed HIV infection rates in this country and across the world. Here in India, the Bell Bajao campaign dramatically increased awareness of laws and discussion on domestic violence. And India has shown it can conquer seemingly insurmountable problems – take polio, for example. In 2009, this country still accounted for over half the world’s polio cases, but after two years of intensified public education to overcome fear and perform widespread vaccinations, only one single case was reported in 2011. Now is the time to harness the revulsion and outrage over what happened on that Delhi bus to cure the epidemic of violence against Indian women.

The Avaaz report proposes a simple four point plan that Prime Minister Singh’s government should introduce before the three month anniversary of the horrendous rape attack in Delhi. First, it has to commit serious money to end this epidemic of violence. That means an investment of at least 50 rupees a year for every Indian citizen in a mass public education campaign – to make the scale and scope nationally transformative. Although this seems a lot, it’s small when you consider the rewards, and much of this cost could be covered via partnerships with private media.

Second, the government must show that this campaign is here to stay: a full-scale media and outreach barrage should last at least four years, while education programmes in schools and other grassroots education efforts should be permanently instituted. India has done it before – for a generation of Indians, Mile sur mera tumhara gave them a glorious view of the stunning diversity and requisite tolerance that was needed to keep this nation together. Then, it was supported by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting – now it should be done for women’s equality.

Third, PM Singh must establish a responsible body with the best brains and the power to oversee this project – drawing from the advertising industry, the most powerful ambassadors from Bollywood and cricket, and the most committed campaigners in government and non-profits. To state the obvious, there is no dearth of talent in India to do this brilliantly, and such a high profile will make the campaign popular and visible, as well as accountable. And finally, the government must establish goals and targets for the reduction of sexual harassment and assault, so that progress is carefully monitored and policies are adapted and improved based on results.

Only the government has the power to lead something this ambitious, because of the funding and scale such a project requires. In the past few weeks, thousands have been on the streets across the country and over 1.1 million people have backed Avaaz’s call for the Indian government to launch this public education campaign – a huge mandate for action.

If Prime Minister Singh’s government makes this commitment now, and drives it home in his remaining months in office, it will send a strong message to India’s citizens and the world that India is serious about protecting women and girls. India currently sits shamefully low – below Bangladesh and Pakistan – in the Gender Inequality Index (at 129 out of 146 nations). There may never be a better moment to fix this, and to make sure that something good finally comes from this appalling tragedy on a Delhi bus.

The Indian people are clamouring for action, to create an India, safe for women and girls. This ambitious plan could be part of Prime Minister Singh’s legacy for India and provide a model for the world to follow.