Insights and Analysis

Can India’s Youth Change Pervasive Culture of Violence and Abuse?

March 4, 2015

By Reecha Upadhyay

It is estimated that every 20 minutes a rape occurs in India. Those who work on the front lines of providing legal and health services to victims say that the reported cases are just the tip of the iceberg. In fact, it is widely accepted that close to 90 percent of rape incidences in India happen within the household, most often by male members of the family and those who are known to the victim. Shame, guilt, and lack of means to live outside their family homes make it difficult or impossible for many women and girls to report rape by their family members.

women's security in India

As a growing economy and an increasingly global player, India cannot afford for women’s mobility to continue to be unsafe and limited in its cities. In his first Independence Day address, Prime Minister Modi spoke frankly about the issue of violence against women in India, stating that “today, as we hear about the incidents of rapes, our head hangs in shame.” Photo/Conor Ashleigh

There has been a lot of media attention on public rapes in India, and rightly so. As a growing economy and an increasingly global player, India cannot afford for women’s mobility to continue to be unsafe and limited in its cities. In his first Independence Day address, Prime Minister Modi spoke frankly about the issue of violence against women in India, stating that “today, as we hear about the incidents of rapes, our head hangs in shame.” Women’s security was also a major focus of the Delhi elections in February, and the winning party, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), has already announced its intentions to make the city safer for women. However, so far, the Delhi government’s approach is mostly focused on improving the city’s infrastructure and less on the root causes of violence and insecurity. Public rape cases that grab headlines are horrific, but they are only a small part of a much larger issue. Young girls and women are subjected to sexual abuse and violence in their homes and in schools. According to a study conducted by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, 53 percent of children have experienced some form of sexual abuse.

India is home to the world’s largest population of young people – 356 million – and they are increasingly connected through social media platforms. The potential this group holds in impacting change was evident after the December 2012 rape of a young medical student in Delhi when thousands of young people took to the streets to demand accountability. And more recently, during the events surrounding One Billion Rising, a global movement that brought out thousands in Delhi and across India demanding greater gender justice.

As young boys and girls grow up with damaging experiences of abuse and violence in their homes, there is an urgency to target our interventions to end violence against women at an early age. The Asia Foundation has been supporting the Delhi-based NGO, Centre for Social Research (CSR), to work with school-going boys and girls to start the discourse on gender equality and violence at an early age. Part of this work, and in preparations for the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) and the 20-year anniversary of the Beijing conference on women, CSR conducted consultations with students from 10 universities across the country. (Read more about these consultations on CSR’s blog.) The consultations were designed to inform the students about the global movement to end violence against women, and to give them an opportunity to use the platform to discuss solutions. One important theme that transpired across the different universities was that the youth in India have the will and determination to take this issue head on.

These consultations revealed the need to look at violence against women as an integral part of other forms of inequality that women and girls face, including sex selective abortion, early marriage, trafficking for sexual exploitation, unequal wage, women’s burden of child care, and access to reproductive health. For India’s youth, a closer look at the inherent unequal distribution of power between men and women and how that leads to violence against women is as crucial as building safer infrastructure. Conversations around violence against women have also shifted to include the role that men and boys play in both defining the problem and in exploring solutions. Sexual abuse is pervasive among both young boys and girls, and there is little attention given to how abuse affects young men and their behavior toward other men and women. For example, in an interview for the controversial new BBC documentary, “India’s Daughter,” by Leslee Udwin, Mukesh Singh, one of the perpetrators of the 2012 Delhi rape, insisted that the victim, Jyoti Singh (also known as Nirbhaya), was to blame for the incident. The documentary also interviewed the defense lawyers of the accused rapists who have publicly claimed they would burn their own daughters alive if they misbehaved in public. The film has sparked a nationwide debate, which, instead of looking at why these men committed such violence, has shifted to accusing Udwin of shaming India and giving the rapists a platform to be heard. Authorities have since announced that they would ban the broadcast of the film in India.

The debate in India today about the documentary further accentuates the fact that little is being done to look at the root cause of gender inequality and violence against women. And despite a number of campaigns by the government to improve this situation, men continue to enjoy impunity for their behavior and women continue to face the brunt of patriarchy.

On March 9-20, The Asia Foundation will support CSR to present the findings from the consultations at the CSW held at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. CSR’s work on capturing the voice of university students across India will be presented to the global community along with a larger conversation on women’s rights and equality in India.

These types of changes can take decades, but given the large number of young people coming of age right now in India, hope lies in this generation to change the pervasive culture of violence and abuse that surrounds them.

Reecha Upadhyay is a program officer in The Asia Foundation’s India office. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.


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