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Indian Women Have Right to Live Without Fearing Sexual Assault

Effective Strategy Needed to Prevent and Respond to Sexual Violence

Demonstrators hold candles during a candlelight vigil for Jyoti Singh, who was gang raped on December 16, 2012 and subsequently died.  © 2012 Reuters

On Friday, May 5, 2017, the Indian Supreme Court upheld the death sentences of four men convicted of rape in the brutal 2012 gang-rape of a 23-year-old student in Delhi that garnered outrage both in India and abroad. Women’s rights groups across India rallied for justice and found public support – no one wants men who committed such a heinous crime roaming free.

But comprehensive change beyond this one notorious case is urgently needed. To make public spaces and homes safer for Indian women and girls, the government should adopt a multi-sectoral national policy with clear budget lines on preventing and addressing sexual assault. This policy should incorporate at least four distinct pillars: prevention, criminal justice and police accountability, health response, and sexuality education. All should be developed with the principle of nondiscrimination and inclusion at heart.

While handing down the death penalty might have emotional appeal, there is no evidence that it serves as a deterrent. Today, sexual assault remains a pervasive and underreported problem. Women’s right to equality means they not only deserve justice after being sexually assaulted, but have the right to live a life with dignity and freedom from violence.

However, the central and state governments have done little to take on the challenge of making public spaces safer for women and girls around the clock. For example, even the ambitious Smart Cities program, which seeks to create model cities across India, has yet to make women’s safety a core pillar of what make cities “smart.” Short-sighted and counterproductive approaches like Anti-Romeo Squads have threatened women’s freedom and safety. These vigilante squads in Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand have morally policed and harassed women with the supposedly noble objective of protecting them from street harassment.

What could make a difference? Women’s rights groups have developed innovative ways of breaking into male spaces and pushing the agenda of public safety forward. Notably, a pan-India movement called Why Loiter?, named after a pathbreaking book, brings together young women who walk the streets during the day and at night, bike around, or sit in parks, asserting their equal right to move freely and without harassment. Safetipin, a mobile-based app, crowdsources information from women on which public spaces they deem to be safe.

Indian authorities should support such initiatives, help scale them up, and act on the information they provide. To date, there has been no systematic effort to proactively identify and fix public spaces that are unsafe, for example, those without street lights and toilets.

One of the least discussed strategies for combating sexual violence is the dissemination of accurate information to promote healthy and respectful relationships. The government should introduce mandatory sexuality education in schools and colleges. Teaching boys and men about consent, power, gender equality, love, consensual sex, and sexual and reproductive choices and health is critical to building a society that understands and respects women’s bodies.

The court verdict on Friday was a response to a shocking and highly publicized act of sexual violence. But the verdict on society is still that far too many women and girls are subject to sexual violence that is not reported and that does not receive an appropriate response from authorities. The government should use this moment of public attention to galvanize a renewed and expanded effort to protect women and girls’ safety and rights.

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