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India

Opinion: India needs more than empty gestures

Six men abused and raped a female student in India. Their victim is now dead. The unbelievable brutality of the attack has unleashed a nation-wide debate. But that's not enough, says ARD correspondent Sandra Petersmann.

Sandra Petersmann
(Photo: Christel Becker-Rau)

Sandra Petersmann is a correspondent with Germany's public broadcaster ARD

Now, after the death of the 23-year-old student, the young, urban middle class in particular is out on the streets. Many are demanding the death penalty for the six imprisoned rapists, one of whom is a minor. And many are also urging the state to finally do something to better protect women. India's urban middle class views the state as void of ideas, deeply corrupt and unable to act - as way for those in power to enrich themselves.

Separate spheres

And the government? Again and again, there are promises to take quick action, like setting up a public database of sexual offenders. Commissions are established, and officials step in front of the TV cameras to tell demonstrators that their demands are being heard. The government appeals to people to protest peacefully while blocking off government districts. Much operates on separate levels when it comes to the governed and the governing, and little is shared.

But collective action is desperately needed because violence against women in India is a daily social phenomenon. In the megalopolis and capital city New Delhi, a rape is reported every 18 hours. And even then, very few victims dare to seek out the police - due to fear, shame or a lack of trust. Three-quarters of sexual predators go unpunished.

The state alone is not enough

The government led by the Congress party must respond to this one-of-a-kind national outcry after the deadly gang rape to spur on a desperately necessary public debate. And the government needs to be at the head of the debate. It has yet to do so. Citizens must also stop merely shouting at the state because the government alone cannot change the role of women in what is supposedly the world's largest democracy.

India's women need support and equality. In the national parliament. In state parliaments. In municipal councils. In universities and schools. In families. At home. When a boy is born, he can no longer be permitted to grow up in the belief that he was born into the superior sex. And women cannot still be raised to believe they are a burden because of the expensive dowries their families traditionally must pay. India must stop telling girls that men get to decide their fate. We cannot allow girls to be aborted because of their sex. When husbands die in rural areas, women cannot continue to be chased from their homes without punishing the perpetrators. Sexual assault can no longer be seen as something like a god-given right to men.

Those are the topics India needs to discuss - and not just for a few days or weeks. That would make the senseless death of the 23-year-old student who wanted to become a paramedic a little less senseless.

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