By Dr. Nidhi Thakur
About five months back I visited the Information Communication Technology (ICT) Center, in Mahbubnagar, in one of the newly carved out South-Indian states of Telangana. Having contributed to the development of some parts of the study material for the center, through consultation with the Center for Sustainable Development at Earth Institute Columbia University, I was understandably very eager to interact with the students on the field. And indeed, the experience was every bit I had hoped for, and more.
Women, from class 12 onwards, sometimes even simple housewives, are highly encouraged to attend the center for three-month courses, to learn basic computer literacy and various other life-skills. The entire course is free of cost, and all it requires is for students to demonstrate sincerity in attendance and an eagerness to engage. None of these were lacking in the women who primarily belong to underprivileged and uneducated families. The ICT Center seemed like the right crack in their dark shell to let light in. It is hoped that through the exposure to education and information at the center, the women would feel more empowered to pursue higher interests of education or financial independence.
What stands out for me, till date, is the look that I had forgotten, in my almost two decades of staying on the Western Hemisphere. A look of naivete that comes from being inexperienced, underexposed, small in age and economically weak. I saw that in many, if not all women there. Yes, they were excited to be learning new things at the Center, but they were also unsure of how their sliver of enlightenment reconciles with their station in life. They are, after all, women. And if being a woman in India is perilous enough, being a woman from a poorer section of the society can only be more so.
That look has haunted me, and as though to shake me from my first-world stupor, last week, India is sent rocking, by yet another brutal rape-murder, this time in the city limits of Hyderabad, the capital city of Telangana, and an hour and a half car-ride from Mahbubnagar!
That India has infamously earned the title of the ‘Most Dangerous’ Place in the civilized world to be a woman, is not just shameful, but also sad. Crimes from female infanticide, sexual harassment, acid-attacks, dowry deaths, rapes and marital rapes are only on the rise. A rape occurs almost every 20 minutes somewhere in India. In a 24 hour cycle, that is a staggering 72 females violated. And those are just the officially reported numbers! Several cases go unreported due to a devious mix of many reasons, including societal taboos around rape, and lack of judicial support for the victims.
Females of all ages are under threat! Minors as young as two years old are victims of such crimes. Since women who are raped represent nothing in common except their gender, rape in India is clearly not a crime of a caste, or a class, or a religion. Rape in India is a crime by men against women. It is misogyny at its worst, and as perverse as it gets, for the nature of the annihilation of the female is becoming more horrible with each crime.
While this is the time to halt an average Indian male on his tracks, and look him in the eye to question him, on his mind-set, and that of other men in his circle, it is also the time to give all out superpowers to centers like this one, where a self-driven set of women from a vulnerable section of the society gather to be granted the gift of upliftment. This captive audience is the exact student body that needs to be empowered with most importantly, the ability for self-advocacy.
The women need to be taught basic English fluency and computer literacy, but also their basic right to speak to men about why crime against women is not just not right but also is economically, demographically and sociologically harmful for men also. The women need to be taught the ability to discuss misogyny with family and friends of all genders, especially in the light of the new high-profile Rape case. They need to be able to come back with a reply, when people say that the recent rape victim was ‘calling’ for trouble by traveling at 8pm in the night. The reply is simple, and every woman, at the ICT Center and otherwise, should memorize it: 8pm is evil because of the evil minds of the perpetrators, just like 8 am or 6 pm or 4 am! Men CANNOT be allowed to declare sun-down as their hour of unbridled lust.
Women at the ICT Center, were the first I thought of when the recent rape case came to light, because of the geography. However, I realize that women all over India, need to talk to men about why crime against women is on the rise, because the solution, if any, has to come collectively. The first step to this cross-gender conversation is empowerment of the self. No being shy, no being coy, no being pretty nor kind. Just straight up and ready to talk. I am very sure that the self-advocacy unit of the ICT Center in India especially, will continue to focus on this. This is particularly required, since crimes such as the recent ones, and in close geography, can be highly threatening and demoralizing, for those who belong to the neighborhood. Looks like there is a lot of work to be done, continuously.