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India Tragedy Seen as Transitional Moment

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Activists in India look to the unabated anger at the death of a young woman as a turning point in their struggle to combat violence against women.

As the world now knows, on December 16, six men sexually harassed, gang raped, and used a metal pipe to assault a 23-year-old woman on a bus in Delhi, India. She was traveling home from the cinema after watching "Life of Pi" with a male friend.  The six men assaulted her friend when he tried to protect her.

As details of the attack emerged, people across Delhi reacted with intense anger. Thousands of people participated in daily protests for more than two weeks. Candle light vigils took place outside the hospital where the young woman fought for her life. Outrage spread globally after she died from her injuries on December 28.

After I learned about this despicable incident and as I followed the growing public indignation, I contacted various anti-violence activists in India to find out their reactions and viewpoints.

Radhika Takru, digital media strategist at the nonprofit organization Breakthrough,  told me she felt sick over the horrific incident, especially as it happened near the route she takes to work. “The way such an ordinary circumstance turned into such a horrific incident makes you question your own ordinary circumstances,” she said.

Dhruv Arora, founder of GotStared.At,  wrote he was “horrified” and that it was “another sad day in the history of the city.”

Indeed, this was just one more crime in a city where women routinely  feel unsafe because of street harassment, where rape—a vastly under-reported crime—is reported every 18 hours, and in a country where there were more than 24,000 reported rape cases in 2011, including many gang rapes. So, I wondered, why did this particular incident garner so much response and outrage?

Amitabh Kumar, a leader of the campaign I Stand for Safe Delhi, told me he thought it was because “young India is sick of the hypocritical approach of blaming the victim…This time we were not going to let this happen.” He continued, referring to the spontaneous nature of the demonstrations, “Also, there was no ‘leader,' hence the common girls and boys felt empowered to speak out loud, to stand against this injustice.”

Takru answered my question, too. “[She] was our age, you see. She went to see a movie with a male friend at the cinema, the one that every young person in Delhi has visited at some point in their lives…Young people in Delhi and around the country stood up because they saw themselves, or someone they loved, in her.”

The public outcry led officials to speed up the trial of the alleged assailants. It also resulted in meetings between anti-violence groups and the police and government officials to discuss proposed measures for change, including fast tracking all future sexual violence cases through the court system. I Stand for Safe Delhi said its proposals for sensitization training for the police force, crime mapping in the city, and more female police officers were well received.

The unprecedented outrage by the public and swift responses by government leaders and police make many people optimistic that this is a turning point for efforts to prevent gender violence.

Kumar wrote, “This is a milestone for women's movement in India as it has reached the hearts of many.” He felt the circumstances of the case sensitized the general public to rape and challenged victim-blaming in a significant way.

Mallika Dut, the president of Breakthrough, said, “I hope this moment will mark India's transition as a country that is the worst place for women to one which led the charge for serious recognition for women's human rights the world over.”

Takru recently told me, “We haven't forgotten her: families, friends, colleagues, and commuters talk about her every day. She's united a country and maybe, just maybe, we'll see the change we've been waiting (and working!) for this year.”

Activists know the best way to ensure that this is a turning point is by keeping people engaged. The anti-violence group Blank Noise launched a “Safe City Pledge” campaign to do just that. Through the campaign, they urge people not to tell women to stay home but to make cities safer by considering what they, as individuals, can do to make it so.

“Building a safe city is every person’s responsibility,” said Blank Noise founder Jasmeen Patheja. “[The campaign] is about each of us being accountable; each of us being citizens and each of us taking our Safe City Pledge.”

Anyone can participate by sharing their pledge on twitter (with the hashtag #SafeCityPledge), by taking a photo holding a sign with the pledge and posting it on Facebook, and by joining offline pledge events.

On January 1, dozens of people participated in pledge events across India, and many more events will take place over the next few weeks. Signs from an event in Bangalore read, “I pledge not to remain a mute spectator,” “I pledge to respect women,” and “I pledge to not be afraid to walk alone.”

Organizers hope to ensure this as the turning point when the world takes gender violence seriously. They encourage supporters to think locally about how to make public places safer for women.

Make your #SafeCityPledge today by clicking here.

More articles by Category: Feminism, International, Violence against women
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