In our society, a woman's problems start from the moment she is conceived.
That was then. More than two years later, what has changed? In February, nine men allegedly gang raped and killed a 28-year-old Nepalese migrant worker in the northern Indian state of Haryana. A Japanese woman accused her tour guide of raping her in Rajasthan. In Uttar Pradesh, two policemen are accused of raping a pregnant woman at gunpoint.
Those were just three incidents that hit the headlines in February; there were many more that failed to catch the eye of the media or were not reported in the first place. According to 2013 data by the National Crime Records Bureau, 93 women are raped in the country every day on average.
In 2013, the year after the rape of the medical student, more than 33,000 women were reported raped across the country. That represents a staggering jump over the 24,000 rapes reported the year before. The capital, Delhi, remains unsafe for women, with annual reported incidents of rape more than doubling over the same period, to more than 1,400.
We can protest until we are hoarse about violence against women. We can demand harsher punishments for perpetrators. We can blame our leaders for not ridding India of the scourge of rape. But the persistence of rape in our society comes down to a simple truth: In India, a woman’s problems start from the moment she is conceived. Her fault is simple: she is not a boy.
In Indian society, boys are preferred over girls; men have the upper hand, always and everywhere. In the case of sex-selective abortions, the female fetus is killed inside the womb. If she manages to escape, she is killed just after birth. If she still survives the murder attempts and progresses into childhood, she faces the threat of ‘Eve teasing’ and rape.
As she grows up, a girl has to withstand many forms of sexual violence, in her work place, in the market, and even inside her home. If she is attacked, the girl is told to keep quiet and to not tell anyone about the sexual violations — that could bring a bad name to the family.
If anyone had doubts that these conditions are entrenched in Indian society, they were put to rest by filmmaker Leslee Udwin in her documentary India’s Daughter.
The film, which was banned this week by an Indian court, includes extraordinary and chilling footage of a prison interview with Mukesh Singh, one of five men convicted of the rape and murder of the 23-year-old medical student in 2012.
In excerpts from the interview published by the BBC, Singh expresses no remorse for the savage rape and murder, even suggesting that the young woman would not have been killed if she had submitted peacefully to the violation of her body.
The film also includes an interview with ML Sharma, one of the defense lawyers for the woman’s attackers.
“You are talking about man and woman as friends. Sorry, that doesn’t have any place in our society,” Sharma explained in the film.
“We have the best culture. In our culture, there is no place for a woman.”
There could be no clearer statement about the moral or cultural disadvantages faced by women in India.
Recently, I spoke with an old woman in a Haryana village about the rape of the Nepali migrant there. Her thoughts should have been shocking, but they came as little surprise to me.
“This is what happens to a girl as she grows up,” the woman told me. “One has to be very cautious about her safety and security until she is married off. Parents cannot follow a girl wherever she goes. That’s why it is better to have boys. They can be carefree.”
Indeed, in our patriarchal society, boys are from day one given preference over girls. They are taught to control a woman’s freedom — first their sisters’, and then their wives’. The male-dominated society even issues codes regulating women’s behavior: you must dress a certain way in public; you must return home before a certain hour.
But we as a society forget to teach men how to behave in the company of women. Imagine how different our lives would be if society would teach our boys a basic, fundamental tenet: respect women.
As Shabnam Hashmi, a Delhi-based women’s activist, told me: “Boys in most families are given preference and brought up as if it is good to tease women and disrespect them. It is the mindset of our society that teaches a man that he can and should control a woman.”
There would be no need to lock up our women in the home, or worry about their safety and security outside of it, if men understood their duties and responsibilities toward women. When men stop seeing women as merely sexual toys, then women’s fears could begin to dissipate.
In January, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched a nationwide scheme to save and educate the girl child. But all these government programs and attempts to boost the welfare of girls will be defeated when girls cannot enjoy a safe environment to live freely.
Is it any wonder that some women would pick a son over a daughter, given the choice?
“Why should we have girls when they are given such a brutal and barbaric end?” said an angry female protester following the February rape of the Nepali woman.
Indeed, why bring a girl into our society, when our society does not acknowledge her true worth? It is an irony that in India, where goddesses are worshiped, that living, breathing women endure such disrespect.
We cannot negate the necessity of firm laws — and their stricter implementation — to provide justice for rape victims. But the real change will start within the family.
We must tell our daughters their rights so that they grow up to be confident individuals. We must show our sons that women are dignified individuals worthy of respect — not rape.
The change in our mindsets must start with us. It will be gradual, but there has to be a beginning. We cannot afford to lose our mothers, daughters and sisters like this.
However, the obstacles in the way of this change remain considerable.
Rather than using Udwin’s documentary as a harsh but essential starting point for an honest discussion about male attitudes towards women, the government has instead banned its release in the country.
Home Affairs Minister Rajnath Singh told parliament that Singh’s comments in the film were “highly derogatory and an affront to the dignity of women”. What he failed to mention was how pervasive such attitudes actually are.
Delhi police spokesman Rajan Bhagat went a step further, saying the film’s “objectionable content” could cause public disorder, as reported this week by AFP.
But outrage, condemnation — even public disorder — are the only logical responses to the craven assumptions about women expressed in the film and inflicted on women on a daily basis in India.
Ritu Sharma is a ucanews.com correspondent based in Delhi.