International Affairs Forum: Could you give readers a general overview of rape in India? How is it comparable to rape globally? How is violence against women viewed and what is the context for those who are not familiar with the country?
Reecha Upadhyay: Rape is prevalent across the globe. The global statistic is one in three women have experienced sexual violence at some point in their life and in India every 22 minutes someone is raped. I admit, India is a very large country, but also what has happened recently, in the past few years, especially after the December 16th rape case, is that rape has become more talked about. Certainly there were brutal rape cases before December 16th, but that particular incident catalyzed a movement in India that I have not seen before where Indians began standing up against sexual violence. In fact, I believe there has never been a greater movement to end rape in India. [However,] rape continues to happen.
The media has been keen on highlighting the gang rape phenomenon. [As a result, rape] seems more frequent, but I think there has just been more focus on this subject by the media. Most of the violence women face is inside their homes and that does not get coverage—it remains a hidden secret. It is their uncles or cousins or parts of their family. There is no generalization of what rape in India is but what I can say is that most sexual violence remains within households and the media continues to report public cases. There is definitely a move to address rape institutionally. Many laws have been passed such as laws on harassment in [the] work place, etc. So there is a shift in how rape is being viewed, however there has not been much of a shift in terms of action or how frequently rape occurs.
IA-Forum: Do you have any ideas or opinions on what created the momentum or shift in thinking after the December 16th rape? Certainly that case acted as a catalyst for movements across India, and the world, as well as a shift in media attention towards rape in India. Do you believe there was something building in society or do you believe it was the event itself?
Reecha Upadhyay: I think what has happened, certainly after the Arab Spring and the turn to social media to organize people, people could be more knowledgeable and mobilized than they could be for previous large rape cases. There are many theories about why that particular event created such a change, but one of the main reasons, I think, is that it happened in a particular neighborhood in South Delhi. This neighborhood is better off—India now has a huge emerging middle class which is much larger than it has been ever before—I think the people that use those buses in those areas and pass through those areas every day were impacted personally. The mall she was at was a place where many people go. Thus, it was a kind of unveiling of the curtain in your own backyard. Many people in India were disconnected from rape before that. There was a mentality that it only happened in particular parts of the country and particularly with low-income groups of people. No one thought that it could happen at 9 p.m. around where they live and in such a brutal and heinous way. And I think the nature of that event itself was hard to process. It was absolutely brutal and it happened in a public space—not behind a closed door. I mean it was 9 p.m. in a part of town that I walk every day. A lot of people realized that rape is something that happens all around us and it is not restricted to certain groups of people, not even to young men and women in universities. It really shocked people. And also because of social media; many people knew about it and it kept the momentum going. Then, because the media continued to focus on the case and additional cases, it has really snowballed.
IA-Forum: Because media has focused primarily on rape in India, it clearly has given India a detrimental image and now people are viewing India in a different light than they were before. However, do you believe in the larger scheme of things this event has been positive for India due to the change in perspective about rape and the resulting law changes, mindsets, etc.?
Reecha Upadhyay: Absolutely. I think the image that India has where women in India face many forms of violence that start even before they are born (due to gender-based infanticide) is accurate. If you are a female you are discriminated against. Young women are sometimes not fed enough and seen as a burden. This only continues into adulthood where women are pressured to get married and have children. So the image that India has is not an image, it is a reality. Because the world is watching at this time, that is a good thing.
How India is being looked at in terms of equality and human rights is correct. In this country there are massive discrepancies when it comes to equality, equal opportunities and sexual violence. All the promises the government is making have not manifested yet. The pool of money has not been used for what it has been promised for. So visibility of rape in India has increased but as for actual change in India, I think we are still struggling to make these changes. We have hope with the new government. Hopefully this designated money will be allocated to make the changes, but change is not just about creating a response to rape. Work should be on prevention of rape. There are many options which include socializing young men, and I think that is where the focus should be. The government and movements tend to focus on the response when we should prevent it from happening at all. If we want to move towards dismantling our image, we need to get not just response, but actually look at prevention seriously.
IA-Forum: Do you think that with the new government in place change can be a reality in the near future?
Reecha Upadhyay: I think there should always be hope for change. I don’t know if it will happen in the near future. I think we still have a lot of work. The movement in India is very vibrant and there have been lots of gains in terms of women's rights. Having said that, violence still persists. As a matter of fact, many people don’t speak about the most prevalent form of violence— domestic violence. Families have accepted shockingly high levels of violence in their home as well as punishments at school. The acceptance of violence is really where the issue is. We need to work on projects that try to change people’s perceptions of violence and women in society. I am not sure if it is going to happen any time soon as we have a long way to go. I do think that as many more women and even men get more involved and aware, society and the whole country will eventually make real change. We need to get everyone involved and make it an issue of inequality across the nation so that we can solve it as a whole and not [separate] women. The fact that half the population is not getting equal opportunities impacts the economy. Violence is not just about a woman’s body but it is actually a reflection of the entire community. When people begin looking at it like that, change will come. There is a little bit of movement with that, but hopefully much more will come.
IA-Forum: Do you have anything to add?
Reecha Upadhyay: There is really good work happening at the ground level. Some of the projects we support, for example, are about engaging men and supporting boys to look at their peers differently. If we start from youth in the school environment, where violence is still accepted and young women are treated differently, and change that culture, we can make real progress. I also think there is a greater need for co-ed schools in this country and with that, sex education. There is a huge discrepancy in how young men and women are being raised. Young men are raised to think they are invincible and they can do anything they want and they are much more valued, whereas women are told they have lesser value and their main objective in life is to get married and have a family. That is where the real work lies. To end violence in India we need prevention and prevention means working with young men and women to change the way women are viewed.
Reecha Upadhyay is a Program Officer at The Asian Foundation (India Office).
Projects of The Asian Foundation include supporting national organizations on work with the police to end domestic violence in Mumbai, gender training for school-aged boys in Delhi as well as a project in Bangalore to give young boys gender awareness.
Interview by Madison J. Myers, IA Forum