International Day of the Girl Child: Let’s think about where the end begins for them

Let’s take the question of gender violence beyond parenting into the bedrooms, living rooms, offices and pubs we talk and walk in every day.

A few months ago, I watched Nirbhaya in Bombay. After the play ended, I went for a walk along Marine Drive with a male friend.

The first sight we chanced upon as we hit the pavement was a couple leaning into a kiss, smiling, forming the triangle of intimacy that is such a familiar sight on this sea facing stretch. I looked at my friend, and we both started laughing.

It was a laugh of relief. That kiss was a much-needed sight after two hours of feeling helpless and alien, angry and confused, sad and shaken – it was good to see wholesome, warming, lip-to-lip love.

As the name of the play suggests, this Indian production was inspired by the gang rape of the 23 year old physiotherapist in Delhi, christened Nirbhaya (fearless) by the media, on the 16th of December, 2012. 7 women in the play told true stories of gender-based violence ranging from rape and domestic violence to public molestation. 5 out of these 7 courageously performed their own stories, allowing the world into the private torture of their experiences.

I saluted the cast for allowing us, the ‘us’ that was lucky to be free of such personal burdens, to glimpse their pain, and encouraging other women to speak out about their own experiences. But I was left with a few nagging questions: Who were these men who had been capable of such brutality? What had they experienced in their own lives that made them turn into monsters?

I feel nervous writing this today, as I felt nervous saying it aloud then – I wanted to understand the men in these stories, just as I had understood the women. I wanted to know the stories of the perpetrators, and see them as human. Not just monsters, but humans.

In the months that have passed since I watched the production, I have realized that this sentiment was not what I wanted from the play but what I wanted from the media, and from the public discourse that had been sparked in the wake of the gang rape – an attempt to understand the root cause of what leads to the incessant presence of gender-based violence across India.

I reflect on this today, the 11th of October, because it is the International Day of the Girl Child. I work for Dasra, a strategic philanthropy foundation that is part of a five year alliance aimed at empowering adolescent girls and addressing the healthcare needs of mothers and children in the country. And as I think of what it would take to create a safe and secure future for millions of girls across India, I think of the millions of boys that must understand that their roles cannot be limited to being either silent observers or perpetrators of gender-based violence.

Nirbhaya’s case has brought us a step or two closer to having effective systems of redress for women who are victims of violence. Since the mass protests ignited by her struggle, laws for perpetrators of rape have been changed so that there is a minimum 20 year sentence meted out by the courts, and in the case of death, the death penalty. Sexual abuse in all forms (including harassment, stalking, and voyeurism) has been made illegal and reports of rape cases have increased. Most importantly, the 2013 Criminal Law Amendment, and the 2013 Sexual Harassment of Women in the Workplace legislations have been passed adding judicial force behind the difficult cases that women must battle out in court for years to get justice.

This reactive change is necessary and we have a long way to go before women have the support systems they need when they are faced with the reality of violence. However, what have we done to proactively prevent these incidents from occurring?

The Prime Minister asked us on Independence Day, in his own whimsical way, the same question this year:

“I want to ask those parents, I want to ask every parent that has a daughter of 10 or 12 years age – you are always on the alert, every now and then you keep on asking where are you going, when would you come back, inform immediately after you reach. Parents ask their daughters hundreds of questions, but have any parents ever dared to ask their son as to where he is going, why he is going out, who his friends are. After all, a rapist is also somebody`s son. He also has parents. As parents, have we ever asked our son as to what he is doing and where he is going?”

Let’s take this question beyond parenting into the bedrooms, living rooms, offices and pubs we talk and walk in every day. Is there behavior we or the people around us participate in that promotes a culture of violence? Are the portrayals of men we see on the big and small screens around us really the kind of partners and lovers we want in our lives? Can we boycott the machismo and brutality so that we get closer to the kind of equal interactions we want to see between all genders? What can we do to bring young boys closer to understanding that there are many roles in this world they can play? How can we get men to know that manhood has nothing to do with exerting power over the women in their lives?

Think about these questions today. As people all over the world celebrate the girl child and fight to empower every girl in society, let us think about where the end begins for them. In the coming decades let men be empowered to be a part of the bright futures of our young women rather than specters in the darkness, bringing terror at every turn.

Read Dasra’s Reports on Adolescent Girls’ Empowerment here: http://www.dasra.org/research-reports-women-empowerment

If you want to get involved in the movement to engage men and boys as supporters against gender-based violence, please contact the following organizations:

Equal Community Foundation: http://ecf.org.in/

Men Against Violence and Abuse (MAVA): http://www.mavaindia.org/

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