Anita Jain: “It’s time for men to deliver”

The infamous Delhi gang rape led to an outpouring of public outrage across the country. It signalled a tipping point in people’s angst with the growing pervasiveness of such incidents. Shaken by the brutality of the act, people took to the streets to question the state of affairs of women’s safety in India. With relative speed, an inquiry commission was set up and went to work intently. A new rape law was enacted bringing under its purview a slew of acts constituting inappropriate behaviour towards women with stringent punishments for perpetrators. Guidelines for medical assistance to survivors are also being developed.

A few months after, an equally brutal assault claimed the life of a five year old girl in Delhi. The police responded by offering a bribe to silence the girl’s parents, and later assaulting citizens who condemned their (in)action! Just days ago, an aspiring young nurse, succumbed to burns from an acid attack as she alighted off a train in Mumbai, dreams in her eyes.

At Women Deliver 2013, eminent Indian journalist, Bachi Karkaria asked: What has changed since the Delhi gang rape? What will it take to end violence against women?

Despite public momentum, one incident is hardly sufficient to turn things around. Legislation has a place, but falls short of uprooting the ills that afflict society, argued Bachi. Rather, prevailing social attitudes need to be targeted that permit men to see women as their property and that connive to pull down women and stop them from exploiting their full rights in the post-industrial age. Drawing from lines by Virginia Woolf, “The eyes of others are our prisons, their thoughts our cages,” Bachi reiterated that an enduring culture change is critical to enable women the space to flourish. Such change begins not in a court of law, but in our living rooms where boys see how their mothers and sisters are treated.

Gary Barker, from the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW), endorsed these views with findings from the International Men and Gender Equality Survey (IMAGES). In this survey, conducted among 8000 men and 3500 women in six developing countries, work and economic stress, alcohol use, conflicts, and rigid gender attitudes emerge as important factors associated with men’s use of violence. However, the single most consistent and important determinant across countries is for men to have witnessed violence within their household during childhood. This violence thus affects not just women, but also men, persisting as a cause of mental trauma and suicidal ideation well into adulthood.

A theme that resonated throughout the conference is the need to engage with men, to enlist them as advocates on women’s issues, and to involve them as care givers and as responsible parents and partners. Clearly, men can no longer be kept out of the discussion.

Anita Jain is the India editor, BMJ.