Last week, the commission that India’s Home Ministry appointed to investigate the infamous rape case and the more general state of women’s safety released a scathing report. It documents systemic discrimination, harassment, violence and a frightening lack of enforcement of the laws that are supposed to protect women and children. This is all just as the fast-track trial of five of the six men accused in the brutal gang-rape and murder of the 23-year-old woman on the bus got underway in a South Delhi courtroom.
Why is rape so widespread in India? Some emphasise the role of cultural stories that prize women’s sexual purity above all else, and the economic upsurge that has pulled women into the workforce and out of their dependence on men. Some blame the small size of the police force and its vulnerability to corruption. Class and caste inequality are also likely causes – easy to see when one looks at the statistics of who gets raped and/or murdered, and which few cases are ever prosecuted.
Americans who read about India’s struggle should not turn away, but instead pay attention to people crying out for justice and make common cause with their struggle. News cycles are notoriously short and so are our attention spans. Our empathy will only transcend these limitations through our own imaginations.
Imagine the faces of the five girls raped in Kandhamal, Odisha, whose cases were recently investigated by a fact-finding team sponsored by the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights. The ages of the girls were 13, 15, 13, five and three. Two of them were gang-raped, while one was murdered. Because these children are Dalits, members of the outcaste, their cases have received little, if any, help from police or other legal authorities.
Theologian Beverly Mitchell asserts that it is through the face that our dignity as creatures of God shines forth and calls us to recognise our connection to each other. She writes:
Indian campaigns launched to protect women
“This connection transcends familial ties, racial and ethnic categories, caste differences, national allegiances, and whatever distinctions we would choose to make that allow us to divide the world between ‘us versus them’.”
We can only imagine these girls’ faces, as showing their pictures or printing their names will lead to more grievous harm to them and their families.
I think also of the faces of the women and children I met in December in a slum in New Delhi. The women’s expressions were kind, but very serious. The poverty of their lives in cramped tin-roofed dwellings was obvious, even as I was graciously offered tea and cookies. Then I learned more: the people living there had no electricity, no schools and no bathrooms. The women could not use even the distant outdoor toilet area during the day. They had to wait until evening and walk together as a group, because they simply would not be safe venturing out alone.
Their safety and ours are connected. We also need to face up to the crime of rape in this country, a crime that is notoriously under-reported and under-prosecuted. The recent discovery of a backlog of DNA evidence in un-examined rape kits in New York City is just one indicator of the lack of seriousness with which the crime of rape is regarded in this country. The Republican refusal to renew the Violence Against Women Act is another. Rape culture is tolerated on so many of our college campuses, and arguably, in the US military as well. Meanwhile, the US still refuses to sign the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).
It is time to interrupt our appalling indifference to the victims of rape and sexual violence here and around the world.
Some may demur and prefer to think of rape as India’s problem. Compartmentalising the world, keeping a little distance between us and them may seem to make reality more manageable. But when we imagine the faces of the victims, when we know that small children are among them, it becomes evident – self-evident, you could say – that our own dignity is bound up with theirs.
The people of India are stepping up to the challenge and keeping the pressure on their government to uphold the rights and dignity of women and girls. The fight will be long and difficult. As allies in a global village, it is time for all of us to face up to the challenge of caring for our kind. For the sake of us all, it is time to stop the heinous crime of rape and cry out for justice everywhere.
Mary Clark Moschella is Roger J Squire Professor of Pastoral Care and Counselling at Yale Divinity School. She is also a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.