Lessons from Nirbhaya incident

Finally, the verdict came. Seven years after Nirbhaya’s brutal gang rape and subsequent death in December 2012, her four perpetrators were recently pronounced to be hanged this month. The verdict is not just a vindication of a long legal battle fought by Nirbhaya’s parents, but also a strong signal that such heinous crimes will be treated with zero tolerance. In many ways, the Nirbhaya incident was a turning point in bringing women safety issues centre stage; the huge public outcry that ensued compelled the government to relook at laws to protect women. But, have we really learnt our lessons from the incident? Not really.

It is not surprising that rapes, physical assaults, molestations continue to be reported from all parts of the country. One can argue that these incidents may be increasing as more of these are now being reported due to heightened public awareness. But what is worrisome is that we are neither working on bringing deep-rooted attitudinal shifts in the society nor infrastructural improvements to help women feel safe. Let us revisit some of these issues.

Efficient public transport system: The fact that Nibhaya’s incident took place in a private bus underscores the need for a safe and reliable public transport system. Private transport is invariably non-regulated with unregistered and ad-hoc drivers and conductors. The drivers are not well-trained and often fail to produce their driving licences when checked. On the other hand, public transport buses that have registered drivers and conductors with permanent jobs have relatively lower chances of misconduct by them. Private buses proliferate when there is inadequacy in public transport system.  Its high time cities make their public transport system accessible, reliable and robust in usage. 

Make Public Spaces Safer: Women need to move at odd hours due to several reasons. They may need to travel for work for late night or early morning shifts, to catch a flight, to buy emergency medicine or groceries or just for fun and entertainment. Nirbhaya was returning late in the evening after seeing a movie with a friend. One cannot restrict women from stepping out at night. Cities need to make its streets and public places safer by having proper pavements and lighting. The more public spaces are used, the more vibrant and safer they become. Incidents such as these are noticed early and responded to with police and medical aid more quickly. The perpetrators are easy to apprehend and there is a greater probability of eye-witnesses to build a strong case.     

Gender conversations must begin at home: Prevention needs to start from an early age. From the socio-economic backgrounds of the accused, it is clear that they did not attend much of school. In any case, only a few schools have an adequate age-sensitive gender sensitisation programmes on an ongoing basis starting from an early age right up to the teens. Gender conversations therefore must begin at home and reinforced within informal communities. Fathers, mothers, sisters must talk to their sons and brothers about respecting women and gender equality. Children must be encouraged to talk about their feelings within the family. A vigilant family will catch the early signs of unwarranted behaviours and attitudes and nip it at the bud.

Underlying Societal Values Need to be challenged:  Clearly, just education and pro-women laws are not enough to prevent such crimes. We need to find out the underlying basis of patriarchy, masculinity and gender stereotypes in our society and address them appropriately. A study conducted a few years ago by the International Centre for Research on Women and the United Nations Fund for Population Activities revealed that the average Indian man is “convinced that masculinity is about acting tough, freely exercising his privilege to lay down the rules in personal relationships and, above all, controlling women”. Such warped sense of gender identity often provides the basis for violent crimes. Besides, negative influence of Bollywood and easy access to questionable content on the internet is making things worse. Bollywood is notorious in certifying certain inappropriate behaviours as cool. The popular song line “Khali Pilli Khali Pilli rokne ka nahi, tera picha karoon to tokne ka nahi” virtually legitimises stalking.

Rape cases to be dealt expeditiously: Despite Nirbhaya case trial being handled by a fast-track court and while it being a seemingly open and shut case, it took seven years to deliver justice. The government has set up over 1,000 fast track courts in the country for disposal of rape and child sexual offence cases. Hopefully, this should help in quick clearance of cases. Due to delays, the perpetrators may feel that they have a good chance of evading persecution. In Hyderabad recently, the act of killing the four accused in the gang rape and murder of a vet doctor in a Police encounter allegedly when they had tried to run away was hailed by many for delivering immediate justice. This sets in a wrong precedence. We must not lose faith in the judicial process.

To sum up, the Nirbhaya verdict is not an end in itself. It should continue to inspire us to keep working towards building a safe and just society that respects women and treats them as equals. That, to my mind, will be the greatest tribute to dream cut short called Nirbhaya.

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