By Glenn Fawcett
“Didi” (meaning “sister” in Hindi) and her family had to overcome many limitations, expectations, and prejudices to escape their small village in pursuit of a better life in Delhi. Didi was on the cusp of realizing her dream of becoming a physiotherapist, when the bright star of her life was tragically snuffed out.
Through this unfathomable event, India lost more than a future doctor; it lost a role model for the country’s 594 million women and girls, the vast majority of whom hail from rural areas and poor backgrounds just like Didi. An 18 year-old cousin in Didi’s home village defiantly stated, “I will study physiotherapy in the same college as Didi and work in Delhi. I fear for my life after what happened to her, but there’s enough courage in me. Her death has made me more determined.”
Remarks like these underscore the radiating effect of Didi’s fortitude and determination, and proves that her dedication to mentoring other girls in her village was worthy and impactful. The tragedy of her brutal gang rape and murder on a moving bus is greatly deepened in view of her exceptional achievements and the influence she had on those around her.
In the aftermath of this tragedy, at least 60,000 suggestions for improving law enforcement have been delivered to the government of India. The local media has been flooded for weeks with reports on the aftermath of Didi’s rape and murder, and I cannot recall a single incident of violence that has so galvanized and mobilized Indians across the country.
Indian citizens are coming forward in unprecedented numbers to demand everything from improved security in India’s metros; to speedier legal services for rape victims; to shifts in public attitudes toward victims of sex crimes. Indeed, a society that interrogates a rape victim, brands her as broken, and accuses her of inviting this crime is clearly one with a social mindset of victim-blaming.
Some politicians and at least one well known ‘God-man’ have suggested that it is a lack of morals and western dressing habits that invite such crimes against girls in India. This social mindset (which exists as much in the villages as in the metros) is the enemy. And this mindset must change if we hope to witness any real reform in our lifetimes.
A country which values a girl’s chastity and honor above her basic human rights…which would rather a girl remain under the constant, watchful gaze of her parents than attend school…is doomed to remain an unjust society.
While in general we find even the most traditional families are not opposed to educating girls, Lotus Outreach’s work across some 600 economically backward villages in the state of Haryana has shown us that parents’ fear of sexual assault and moral transgression continues to keep large numbers of girls out of school. There are many reasons why girls don’t attend public schools — lack of toilets, water and poor education quality among them — but the main problem is the combination of distance and fears associated with female mobility and independence.
Though primary schools are widespread in our work area, secondary schools are not, and if a girl does not have a lower secondary school in her village, she stops going — even if the nearest school is only a mile away.
Our challenge is to motivate and mobilize village communities to take the bull by the horns and work together to create solutions, such as admonishing a parent chaperone to accompany girls to school in groups or using one of many forms of farm vehicle to ferry their daughters in large numbers. Lotus Outreach has been providing buses for 500 girls and former child laborers, many of whom are now becoming the first girls in the history of their villages to reach secondary school.
It was these girls and the effect they are having on their peers that I thought of when I read about Didi and how she had inspired so many others. The way the girls from her home town spoke of her after all that had happened showed me the depth of her contribution, a contribution that lives on even after her passing.
Being out in Delhi even in the daytime—but especially after dark—has become increasingly dangerous. Street lights are forever not working, there are not enough properly trained police on patrol and there is hardly any camera surveillance. Women who become victims of harassment and sex crimes are often further brutalized by insensitive and uncaring police, court officers, and medical staff during investigations.
Critical forensic evidence is not gathered and it is often difficult to even have a case lodged. The laws under which perpetrators are booked and their sentences do not fit the heinous nature of the crime. Influence, peddling, and corruption further weaken the chance of convictions so there is a sense perpetrators are often immune to consequences.
Further, victims do not have access to specialized assistance to deal with their trauma or redress grievances in the event of ill treatment during the course of filing their statements and the investigation process.
Of all the cases reported and unreported, for some reason Didi’s tragic end hit a chord with the Indian public and all of the shortfalls that make India an unsafe place for women are now under a microscope. If the pressure is sustained, I believe it will result in an array of reforms that will go some way toward mending all that is broken and make India a safer place for women.
I’m also sure that of the tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands that took to the streets to mourn Didi’s passing across the country, many young girls and women will have further honed a steely determination not to be cowed by the threat of violence hanging over them. Instead, it is my great hope that this public outcry will lead them to demand a just and equitable society for women, and a society in which they can achieve whatever their hearts desire.
Glenn Fawcett is the Executive Director of Field Operations for Lotus Outreach International, has lived and worked in Delhi since 1995. The nonprofit organization is dedicated to improving the education, health and safety of vulnerable women and children in the developing world.