Thursday, January 10, 2013

Women, Rights and Respect

Working in the developing world is challenging for the most part. One of the most difficult aspects for me has been adjusting to the attitudes towards women. This is something I largely took for granted whilst living in the UK and paid even less attention to it whilst in Canada. The recent events in India, however, is just one example that brings home just how different cultures in the developing world are and what little regard they seem to have for women.

Last month the horrific gang rape on a bus of 23 year old medical student from Singapore whilst in India caught the attention of the world. Needless to say the publicity provided a much-needed platform for women’s rights activists both in India and abroad. According, to women's groups there is one rape every hour in India, with females belonging to lower castes or from tribal origin experiencing the highest risks.

In Africa this is no different. Rape in South Africa, for example, is a statistic only an idiotic government would ignore – the country has one of the highest reported rape rates in the world. Note the deliberate emphasis on the word ‘reported’. It is significant because the real sexual assault rates in both South Africa and India is an order of magnitude higher. Society in these countries is quick to blame some external factor, or worse the women themselves for such assaults. Now in India, it's only due to social networks like Facebook that this incident has become a global issue in feudal conservatism.

The call for tougher Indian rape laws has been around for quite some time. The same situation applies in the African countries where I have done much social work. And now, the political pressure has yielded some results in India in terms of fast track courts. As a short term measure this is good but what happens when the fury expressed by the public on the topic dies down in a few months. Will India have to wait for another gruesome incident before such a reaction shakes up politicians to take a harder look at the root cause of such behaviour?

In South Africa, it appears that people rarely openly acknowledge the issue – this applies to both men and women alike. It is as though they are living in a cocoon of cognitive dissonance. They know the issue is there, and it’s big. But like the dark Lord Voldemort, don’t you dare talk about it. Suggest that the government acts more harshly on it and you’re greeted by stories of innocent young women rounded up by the police who quite blatantly expect to receive sexual favours in exchange for release. And these are not urban legends – this has happened to several people I have worked with in women's shelters.

For years women's support groups have demanded the laws on rape be modernized. But, so far law makers and corrupt politicians have been slow to answer to women's pleas from brutal Delhi. The issue as suggested earlier in this article, is not one of law alone. It is one of societal attitudes and a lack of respect for women in these countries. The question remains if the law cannot fix it what really needs to be done to rectify the situation.

I believe the answer lies in a combination of education and mass action. For me, this is no different an issue to that of suffrage. Women need to fight for their rights. Otherwise they will continue to be given a meaningless lip service on the issues that matter to them and no real change will be effected. The irony of the situation is that in both India and many countries in Africa, women tend to be the more productive members of society – especially in the rural areas. They are hard-working and determined. Imagine if they all stuck together in unity for a common cause, the greater good. It would be exactly what is needed to shock the system into a major correction.

The momentum is there now in India to create a real change, but it needs to be sustained and elevated. The fast track courts proposal should be considered only as an interim solution and the law needs to be given real teeth. By real teeth I mean effectively enforced. Otherwise women will be gambling with their lives as they would on some online casino in India - they can take a stand but rest assured they will always lose in the end.

Click here to leave your comment

- * - * - * -

On the personal front, I have just finished a large project with a women’s rights NGO in Uganda which was a fascinating experience… more about this in my next article. Sometimes I wish I could just play lottery online or actually simply click here or visit this website and win big myself so I can fund so many of the ventures I know will help in these countries. Not that I would ever venture to gamble online - ironically this is an introduction to my forthcoming article on gambling and its related social issues in developing countries. This is one more area, like lack of enforcement of women’s rights, that unfortunately affects the poor, despite the available regulation.