India faces a social crisis in 'Eve-teasing'

It's not easy to end widespread bad behaviour towards women. But India needs to make the effort.

Powered by automated translation

A shocking gang rape on a Delhi bus last Sunday night has galvanised India. The crime, the latest in a string of brutal rape cases, has led police and many lawmakers to call for the death penalty for rapists. Protests continue in several cities.

Will this be the case that begins a long-overdue change in the way Indian women are treated in public? Horrible cases make headlines, but across the spectrum of behaviour, from leering glances to savage crimes, India has a problem. Of the more than 256,000 violent crimes reported last year, almost 90 per cent involved female victims. The number of rape cases doubled between 1990 and 2008, although that may in part reflect more frequent reporting.

In any society, attitudes and behaviour towards women are connected, in a seamless continuum of thought and action. So it is telling that what many Indian men commonly indulge is dismissively called "Eve-teasing". Behind this harmless-sounding term lurks the pervasive and sinister notion that it is acceptable to make lewd remarks, brush against women in public and even overtly grope them - or worse. There is no "teasing" in it, and lower-caste women are often the targets. In a number of cases, including one reported this week, women have killed themselves after being harassed.

India is not alone in confronting this problem. Countries in this region and across the world are grappling with antiquated gender biases and the social issues associated with rapid urbanisation. But this recent case, in which a woman and her male companion were horribly assaulted, is far too familiar to many Indians.

Attitudes are - slowly - changing. In Chandigarh, for example, a proposal to let girls out of private schools five minutes before boys to prevent harassment has been rejected; instead boys must be told why they should behave better, school officials say.

In some cities, undercover police have been effective, but as a National reader points out today, law enforcement has often failed in Delhi.

The first requirement for social change is leadership; prominent persons in all walks of life, not just politicians, must speak up against all levels of sexual harassment. Then there's legislation: women's groups want clearer categories of offences, with suitably graduated penalties.

No civil society can allow attacks of this sort to persist. These protests show that Indians recognise this, but will it be translated into action?