How is a nation’s ‘progress’ with regard to sexual violence — and specifically, violence against women — to be measured? It has been a year since the gang-rape and death of a young woman in a bus in Delhi. It was an event that seemed to have united the country in a feeling of active, and activist, outrage — as much in the real as in the virtual world. One definite change is that rape and other forms of sexual crime against women are now much more a part of the conscious and articulated lives of women and men in India. This has resulted in more such crimes being reported to the police, which, in turn, makes the statistics look more shocking. Whether this means a more sexually violent society (with the Delhi gang-rape acting as a sort of inspiring template for sexual crime) or simply a case of greater visibility and debate, is difficult to determine objectively. The police are certainly more careful about dealing with such offences promptly and sensitively, although the recruitment and deployment of policewomen remain inadequate. If abuse of power is at the heart of sexual violence, then some of the nation’s highest custodians of equality and justice have also recently shown themselves to be alarmingly fallible.
What then should be made of the fact that the thousand-crore Central fund set aside for nationwide initiatives on women’s safety remains tangled in bureaucracy, and is therefore yet to be used? Nor have some of the most radical recommendations made by the J.S. Verma committee — the recognition of marital rape and a more unsparing attitude towards army personnel accused of rape, for instance — been taken seriously by the Centre. In most of the media, reports on women’s safety, or evaluations of the progress made in this sphere, make India look like a nation only of big cities. Notions of policing, or of making buses safer and roads better lit, or workplaces more secure against sexual harassment, fail to visualize, or think through, the domestic and working lives of millions of women and girls in provincial and rural settings, where the absence of, say, proper toilets can throw them into situations of sexual peril. To ensure that women are, and feel, safe in a country where inequality breeds a myriad forms of brutality cannot but be a long and dispiriting struggle, difficult to measure in terms of quick or tangible results.