Today Bangalore, yesterday everywhere, tomorrow anywhere.
Every few months, yet another incident of sexual harassment or assault somewhere across this vast country grabs the attention of the media and triggers a fresh outpouring of genuine public outrage and anguish, accompanied and intensified by patently absurd, predictably obnoxious comments from politicians, police officers and others in supposedly responsible positions.
Most incidents that elicit a nationwide outcry tend to take place in a public space in a big city, even though they are not representative of the over 130,000 cases involving sexual offences (about a third of all crimes against women) documented by the National Crime Records Bureau in 2015—including those that are inappropriately termed “assault on women with intent to outrage her modesty” and “insult to modesty of women”.
Similarly, the public uproar over sexual crimes involving victims/survivors from the middle classes and perpetrators who are strangers from the under-classes obscures the fact that in over 95% of the more than 34,600 cases of rape reported in 2015 (no doubt a fraction of the actual number), the offenders were known to the victims.
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In the aftermath of high-profile cases of sexual harassment or assault, the primary focus is typically on the specifics of the particular event (buses in 2012, New Year’s eve celebrations now) and what, besides swiftly bringing the guilty to book, can be done to prevent such occurrences in the future: better policing, crowd control, streetlights, public transport, more CCTV cameras, helplines, panic buttons, apps…
Public figures and others who question the wisdom of the women under attack being where they were when they were, and what they were wearing and doing, are called out for holding such antiquated, invalid views and attempting to blame and shame the victims instead of condemning the deplorable, criminal behaviour of the perpetrators (not to mention the habitual inaction of most bystanders).
But there are nevertheless many takers for the notion that women—specifically mothers—are still to blame for it all: restricting daughters too much or not restricting them enough, mollycoddling sons and reinforcing prevailing norms of male superiority and entitlement. Any suggestion that fathers may also have some responsibility in this context is commonly dismissed with the unquestioning assertion that mothers are naturally, invariably more involved with the raising of children. Parenting is evidently seen as a woman’s job even now, even if she is not single.
The eagerness to absolve men of any accountability for tackling the sexual violence epidemic (never mind other widespread and outrageous forms of gender-based violence) cuts across the sexes. If the overwhelming, understandable response of most “good”, “respectable” men is #NotAllMen, many women are also quick to condemn what they mistakenly perceive as male-bashing. It is no sensible person’s case that all men are sexual predators. Some of our best friends, relatives and colleagues are men. It goes without saying that many men are as horrified and sickened by such behaviour as most women.
However, it is an inescapable fact that the overwhelming majority (to put it mildly) of those who commit sexual crimes is male, irrespective of class, caste, creed, race, ethnicity, age, location, marital status and whether their prey—especially in cases of rape—is female, male or transgender. So there can be no doubt that if sexual violence is to be confronted and addressed effectively, as a substantial section of the visible and audible public now seems to believe it must be, men must get actively involved in the effort. If men are a major part of the problem, they can and should also be an important part of the solution.
The effort to deal with the problem of sexual violence has to extend beyond the expression of feelings and opinions in the media, including social media, and even participation in protest demonstrations—although it would certainly help if more men invested time and energy in such visible action on the ground. It needs to permeate every nook and cranny of society: homes, schools, colleges, workplaces, marketplaces, playgrounds, movie theatres, bus stops, railway stations, clubs, places of worship, and pretty much everywhere else.
The effort must also go beyond demanding action from “the authorities”, necessary as that is. We the people—men as much as women—need to feel equally responsible. There is a tendency—even among otherwise intelligent and rational individuals—to dismiss suggestions that neither sexual violence nor any other form of gender violence can be eliminated, or at least significantly reduced, without comprehensive, consistent, continuing efforts to change the attitudes that underlie such behaviour, including misunderstanding or rejection of gender equality and misguided notions of masculinity.
This is despite the fact that the widely acclaimed January 2013 report of the committee on amendments to criminal law, headed by the late justice J.S. Verma and based on over 80,000 submissions from across the country and beyond, devoted an entire chapter to “Education And Perception Reform” as an essential aspect of the struggle against sexual assault. If one thing is clear after over 35 years of multipronged efforts, mainly by women, to stem the tide of sexual violence, it is that there is no short cut, no magic bullet. And it is time for everyone who believes that such violence can no longer be tolerated to stand up and be counted.
Ammu Joseph is a journalist and author based in Bengaluru.