M.J. Akbar’s resignation from the post of Union minister of state for external affairs represented the most high-profile case in India’s #MeToo movement. But there are a great many other allegations against government ministers, film stars, media personalities, corporate leaders and even those in the non-governmental organization sector. This breaking of silence around the abuse of women by men in positions of power is heartening, given the suffering—be it day-to-day harassment, or extreme cases such as the horrific Nirbhaya case—that women have endured historically in India.
While it is important to recognize the power and value of survivor experiences emerging in this context, it is unclear where this movement will go next. Over the past decade, India has witnessed numerous mass movements built on outrage, but little has emerged in the form of substantive and sustainable change. The 2011 anti-corruption movement did lead to the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act in 2013; yet, a Lokpal has not been appointed and the act itself has not been implemented. Further, while the protests after Nirbhaya led to changes in criminal law, the impact of the law is limited as 99% of India’s rapes go unreported, and conviction rates stand at 19%.
For India’s #MeToo initiative to bring about change, three things must happen.
First, women must be reassured that their sharing results in consequences. Akbar’s resignation is a crucial first step. The resignation of entertainment group AIB’s chief executive officer Tanmay Bhatt, and the disbandment of Phantom Films after allegations emerged against director Vikas Bahl are other instances of repercussions that alleged perpetrators as well as complicit figures of authority are facing. Yet, these are largely social sanctions and consequences; only when the legal process punishes cases of wrongdoing will women feel that they have achieved justice.
Second, the movement must become inclusive of poor, rural, and minority women, and not remain confined to elite, urban, upper caste women (as argued eloquently at ). Only a third of India’s population is urban, only a tenth speaks English, and far fewer make up the elite in the media and publishing industries. In the context of the multiple inequalities of India—based, inter alia, on income, caste, and religion—it is crucial to recognize that women from different walks of life face different challenges. If these are not recognized and incorporated, the movement runs the risk of isolating itself to an elitist core, which is not only undemocratic, but detrimental to the goal of eliminating all kinds of gender-based discrimination.
Third, it is essential that women feel emboldened to file reports, and force both internal bodies, as well as the police and judiciary to take action. Available statistics indicate that only 1% of cases of violence against women are reported. The reporting of harassment itself is not always received well and, despite the existence of legal frameworks, both internal bodies as well as state institutions like the police and the judiciary remain woefully inadequate in dealing with these issues. Reporting and action must be normalized so complaints are heard but not disbelieved.
We do not deny that achieving these objectives is going to be a Herculean task, especially for women from low-income backgrounds in rural areas. It is known that the police in India is chronically understaffed and low on resources. Thus, they are not always equipped to ably respond to the needs of even those survivors who make it to the police station. Moreover, there is a need for strong attitudinal shifts. Given that the conditioning of the police force mirrors that of society, there is a trend of normalizing violence against women and blaming the victim for actions that are seen as contributing towards their assault.
However, a slow and steady shift is beginning to emerge. For instance, our team at the Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) has spent the past year-and-a-half working closely with the Madhya Pradesh Police (MPP) to help design and test an intervention to make reporting of crimes at the level of the police stations easier. We aimed to do this through the creation of individual women’s help desks in 120 police stations across 12 districts, with added infrastructure, trained and sensitized staff, and the creation of a network of community volunteers. While the effects will only be known after further data collection, the political and bureaucratic commitment on the part of MPP are an encouraging sign, as is their willingness to engage in research for evidence-based policy.
Bringing about change is not an easy task. Fieldwork with the police force reveals prejudices; for instance, policewomen regularly warn people to not bring “fake cases" instead of encouraging women to speak up, which deters reporting. Further, there remains the challenge of a judiciary that has a high backlog of cases and is under severe constraints. Finally, societal attitudes towards women remain archaic.
Regardless, it is imperative to not lose momentum. Mere activism, or indeed, ‘slacktivism’ is not enough. Policymakers, activists, and researchers need to work together on the hard graft of figuring out which specific interventions work to change attitudes and society. India needs to step up and rise to the task of converting outrage into the hard work of concrete policy change if the voice of survivors is to have any meaningful and lasting impact.
Padmini Baruah and Sandip Sukhtankar are, respectively, a graduate student at the Fletcher School, Tufts University, and an associate professor of economics, University of Virginia.