By Tom Garmeson
“As we walk through the slum at Chattarpur, police are supervising a digger as its driver haphazardly attempts to knock down the first floor of a nearby house. For the inhabitants of this corner of south Delhi, life is precarious. Most are employed in unskilled labour, with no benefits or job security. They receive as little as one hundred rupees (about £1) per day, and the work is monotonous, and often hazardous. Many live in illegal housing on government land, which is at risk of being demolished at any time. There is also a huge gender imbalance: For every thousand boys there are only 836 girls; symptomatic of a society which has long favoured its male offspring.
On the 16th December 2012, Jyoti Singh Pandey, a 23 year old student, was the victim of a brutal gang rape on a private bus in south Delhi, just a few kilometres from Chattarpur. She suffered numerous injuries, and died 13 days later. That now infamous attack sparked a public outcry; there were mass protests in a number of Indian cities, and the world’s media put India’s gender inequality issues under intense scrutiny. The government fast-tracked the perpetrators through the justice system, and scrambled to introduce harsher new penalties for sexual violence, as well as classifying offences such as voyeurism and stalking as criminal acts for the first time. Despite these reforms, many argue the new legislation does not go far enough. Indeed, most forms of marital rape are technically still legal in India.
Clearly, bringing about real social change in a country of 1.2 billion people, of disparate educational, economic and cultural backgrounds, will not happen overnight. For many, the time had at last come for a wider debate on women’s rights in India, but in poor or rural communities, many women remain unaware that a debate is even being had. That is where the Crisis Intervention Centre (CIC) comes in.
The CIC at Chattarpur is well hidden. There is no sign outside to advertise its presence, and no banner to welcome its attendees. It’s not much to look at either; just a couple of tiny rooms perched on the first floor of a crumbling building. But as Amitabh Kumar, head of Media and Communications at the Centre for Social Research (who run the CIC), points out, that’s the whole idea. “The women have to feel comfortable there… like they’re in someone’s home”, he says. The centre provides help for victims of domestic violence, marital rape and other gender-related issues. Crucially, men are involved at every stage of the process, a policy arising from the belief that gender inequality is a social issue, rather than solely a women’s issue.
For head counsellor, Rekha Dubey, who has lived in the community for many years, the first step towards female empowerment is for all women to be aware of their own rights. On a case by case basis, she is helping to build a women’s support network spanning the local community, which now stands at over a thousand members. They all look out for one another, going door to door to check up on their neighbours, attempting to ensure that no woman feels trapped and isolated in her own home. Dubey herself says she now lives a life without fear, and only wishes all the women in Chattarpur could feel the same.
Back at the CSR’s headquarters, Amitabh Kumar acknowledges the relative success of this centre is a drop in the ocean. “It’s a generational process”, he admits, “and I know that things won’t change within my lifetime”. But in certain circles, there is a mood of quiet optimism. The new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, addressing the nation on India’s Independence Day, used the opportunity to speak directly to the country’s hundreds of millions of parents. On a day usually reserved for celebration, he spoke of India’s “shameful” rape problem, and stated that it was their responsibility to teach their sons right from wrong. In a culture which for centuries has emphasised the importance of parent-child relationships, this could arguably be just as significant as any piece of legislation. ”
Photograph – Christian Haugen