India’s experts look to education in trying to curb prevalence of rape

Last Wednesday, police said, the driver of a prominent Bollywood actor took a17-year-old girl to a lodge in Nalasopara in Mumbai, India and sexually abused her. Rajendra Gautam, 34, was arrested for allegedly raping the underage girl, who worked as the maid of a local actress, on the pretext of getting her a job with his employer.

The incident is the latest in a series of brutal attacks on women in India – a string of violence that has drawn massive international attention since the 2012 gang rape of a paramedical student in Delhi, and which was again inflamed when two teenagers were killed and hanged from a mango tree in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh late last month.

A growing global chorus has since called for change in policies and attitudes surrounding the treatment of women in the nation of 1.2 billion.

But solving the issue is no easy task. It means sorting through a tangle of deep-seated social problems that include a tradition of male dominance, caste-based sexual violence and inadequate public safety and sanitation, experts say. And the bottom line is education must be at the center of the fight to end violence against women.

“You need to do many things at the same time,” said Dr. Jacqueline Bhabha, director of the FXB Center of Research and a professor of health and human rights at the Harvard School of Public Health. But most fundamental to the cause, she said, is better education and a more rigorous discussion of gender and gender norms in school – because how children are taught to interact with one another contributes to their views of the opposite gender later in life.

Encouraging healthy gender interaction at a young age and training teachers to support it strike at the heart of negative attitudes toward women in India, said Bhabha, who also specializes in the rights of children and adolescents.

Although more than 9 million schools in India cater to both boys and girls, a patriarchal mentality still pervades the country’s educational system, she said.

For one thing, sexual harassment in schools and colleges remains an issue, and the blame is still placed on the female victims instead of the male perpetrators. In December 2012, for instance, the Adarsh Women’s College in Haryana state – about 100 km west of New Delhi – banned female students from wearing jeans, short dresses and T-shirts and imposed a $100 fine on anyone who broke the dress code.

“The small dresses don’t cover students and that is the reason why they have to face eve-teasing,” school head Alaka Sharma told the Indian news channel NDTV. “Eve-teasing,” a term used mostly in South Asia, refers to the public sexual harassment or molestation of women and alludes to the biblical Eve’s tempting of Adam from the path of virtue.

Harassment also caused six villages in the north Indian state of Mahendragarh to stop 400 girls from attending secondary school in April of last year. Only one of the offending boys ever faced disciplinary action.

It doesn’t help that textbooks and learning materials tend to reinforce gender myths. Forty-five percent of stories in Indian schoolbooks are male specific, with only 22 percent of female characters assigned to professional roles such as police officer, shopkeeper or postman, according to a 2012 study in the Research Journal of South Asian Studies, published by the University of Punjab in Lahore.

“The world constructed by textbooks was of gender apartheid and seemed to strengthen a patriarchal society,” the researchers wrote.

And traditional gender roles are still enforced in many Indian homes today, a 2014 study in the International Journal of Population Research found. Sons are given preference in education and mobility, while daughters are less likely to engage in independent decision-making and have limited access to money, according to the study, which surveyed more than 44,000 youths in six Indian states. 

The report also found that males more than females tend to notice gender-discriminatory practices at home – an outcome that the researchers found troubling, as it implied that girls lacked awareness of their own disadvantage.

Globally, education as a way to prevent violence against women is receiving growing support.

Voices Against Violence, for instance, is a co-educational curriculum that provides tools for young people to stop violence from happening and promotes awareness of gender bias and stereotypes. The program, launched in 2013, was developed by the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts and the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women.

Partners for Prevention, a regional joint program for preventing gender-based violence in Asia and the Pacific, also released a study last year that reaffirmed the importance of establishing a sense of gender equality among the youth.

Half of those who admitted to rape said their first time was as a teenager, the study, which surveyed more than 10,000 men, found. Worse, the most common reason that participants cited for rape was one of sexual entitlement – “a belief that men have the right to sex with a woman regardless of consent,” according to the report.

“Prevention is crucial because… the majority of the factors associated with men’s use of violence can be changed,” James Lang, Program Coordinator for Partners for Prevention, said in a statement.

But in India – which ranked as the fourth worst place in the world for women and where almost 25,000 rape cases were registered in 2012 alone – government solutions to violence remain reactive instead of proactive.

In response to protests against sexual violence, the Indian Parliament last year passed laws that penalize stalking, groping and voyeurism and allowed the death sentence for repeat offenders or for fatal rape attacks.

Human rights advocates such as Bhabha, however, said that such actions, while positive, fail to address the root of the problem.

“Criminalization and so on are all very well,” she said, “[but] as long as there is the implicit notion of girls as subordinate, as objects, [the violence] won’t stop.”

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