by Ruth Messinger and Javid Syed
On September 13th, ten months after the brutal gang rape of a 23-year-old Indian woman in New Delhi, the four men accused of the crime were found guilty and sentenced to death.
Importantly, this case has garnered international attention and sparked meaningful dialogue among human rights activists, lawmakers and Indian citizens. But we’ve learned from Indian feminists—such as Trupti Shah, Hasina Khan, Geeta Misra and Jaya Sharma—that we cannot view this one case in isolation. We must see it as intrinsically linked to a crippling cycle of violence, oppression and humiliation that women, girls, Dalits (“untouchables”) and other marginalized communities experience in India on a daily basis—often at the hands of police, health care providers, employers and family members.
Swift and fair trials are critical to encourage survivors of violence to seek justice and to raise awareness, but ending gender-based violence requires much more than these convictions.
Taking one step forward in the aftermath of the rape, India’s parliament passed a new law to stem sexual violence against Indian women. While this piece of legislation represents some progress, it is regrettably not enough. The law does not protect women from being raped by their husbands nor does it make it easier to prosecute gender-based violence perpetrated by India’s national security forces.
Shaping an environment free of violence requires laws and institutions that give citizens access to protection and justice. Moreover, we also must make sure the most vulnerable members of Indian society are able to advocate for their rights in all facets of their lives. Often, this kind of progress is made possible by work at the grassroots level, not only in the halls of power. In order to realize a full vision of justice, people on the margins and legislative decision-makers must work together to implement enduring, informed solutions to social and economic problems.
There are grassroots organizations working tirelessly throughout India to ensure that all people—girls, women, lesbians, transgender women, sex workers and Dalit women alike—have access to education, jobs, healthcare, physical protection and emotional safety.
For example, the organization Awaaz-e-Niswaan (AEN)—which organized protests and vigils following the rape in New Delhi—provides a haven where Muslim adolescent girls can meet with their peers to learn about their rights, develop a network of peer support and understand how to access government and non-government services to defend their rights. Not only has AEN spoken up for the rights of Muslim women and girls, it has also worked in partnership with sex workers and LGBT groups, whose experiences of violence are often ignored or delegitimized by the Indian government.
The organization understands that the problems girls face in India—from crushing poverty to discrimination to rape—are so interconnected that they must be addressed together. For this reason, many girls who come to AEN looking for an education or a supportive peer group leave with much more: self esteem, leadership skills and critical knowledge about gender issues, sexual and reproductive health, and their legal rights.
Similarly, the Shaheen Resource Center for Women—an organization that provides legal counseling, leadership development and education to Dalit and Muslim communities—offers classes to teach girls and women the skills they need to earn a living. This increases their ability to resist oppression and live self-sufficiently. But besides teaching livelihood skills, Shaheen also teaches women about their bodies and their right to bodily integrity, so that women can value themselves and learn not to normalize violence that may seem commonplace in their communities.
By strengthening the voices of women, girls and other marginalized communities, and by advocating simultaneously for changes in policies, we are one step closer to realizing an inclusive vision for justice and to building a world in which tragedies like the Delhi rape case are a thing of the past.
Ruth Messinger is the president of American Jewish World Service.
Javid Syed is a senior program officer for Asia at American Jewish World Service.