What is wrong with us

A few weeks ago we got a huge shock. One of our most important funders informed us that come September they would be reducing their seizable contribution by half! The reason: India was now considered an unsafe place for tourists and as our monies was dependent on the numbers visiting India, there was no option unless a miracle happened. If no miracle then we would have to make a Sophie's choice and be compelled to close one of more of our centres.

In my wisdom I put everything on hold praying for a miracle or if not that, at least for an epiphany to save my children. It is sad that when anything goes wrong in the country it is always the voiceless children who pay for it. I remember that when India imploded its bomb in 1998, when I had just decided to start project why, many of my friends who run organisations helping the deprived saw their funding cut overnight. Now how does cutting the funds that help an autistic child or a slum kid help make a statement against the policy of a country?  Beats me.

I agree that when a foreign tourist is raped the people in her country would become ballistic and I also understand the negative reaction that will ensue. I also understand the anger we saw when the young woman was brutally raped and assaulted in December 2012 in Delhi. I can also understand the demand to see the perpetrators hang! But sadly hanging a perpetrator, making stringent laws, and all other such solutions cannot and will not stop rape or abuse as statistics have showed. Rapes have not stopped. Rape and sexual abuse is a hydra headed monster whose multiple heads will keep growing again and again unless we are able to find a way to cut its 8 mortal heads and bury his 9th immortal one. But first one has to identify all these heads and work out the right strategy.

Last week a group of journalists from the country of the women who has raped recently came on what is known as a 'fam' ( familiarisation)  tour. These are organised by the Government or by the tourism and hospitality sector  to showcase a country/place. The group also wished to visit one of our centres. I met with one of the members and a friend for lunch a few hours prior to their meeting with a honcho at the Tourism Ministry. She suggested I accompany them but I refused knowing I would not be able to keep my mouth shot at the lame excuses and statistics I knew would be thrown at them. I was not wrong. That is exactly what happened. The pompous official took great pride in telling them that India ranked 19th in women's safety in the G20 list. I guess he must have also spouted out figures to prove his point. I guess there has to be an official view that defends the indefensible!

That was his job and I presume he must have given himself a pat on the back.

The next day the group was visiting us and would want to know my take on the situation. Actually it is this visit that compelled me to put a bit of order in my head and come up with something that I hoped would sound coherent. Before I go on, I wish to say that these views are mine alone and are based on what I have seen and experienced in the past decade and a half and on common sense if such thing exists.

What today manifests itself in rape, sexual assault and targeting of women in varied ways is indeed a hydra headed monster that has several different heads. It all begins with gender inequality and the sad truth that girls are not wanted from the moment they are conceived. This is unfortunately not a feeling solely perpetrated by the male gender, but more by the female one starting with the mother-in-law and so on to the point when the mother itself resents the arrival of a girl child. The seasons are many but I think the main reason is the financial burden of the marriage and if by any twist of fate the roles got reversed, I wonder if it would be boys who would find themselves at the receiving end. Whatever the reason a girl in India is considered to be in the custody of her natural family as her real home is that of her husband's. This notion is present in the folklore of the land and is the subject of many songs and even film scripts.

In homes today, including middle class ones, one can witness the fact that girls and boys are treated differently in the choice of schools and education opportunities and in poorer homes even in the food given. At a very young age boys realise that they ate 'superior' to their girl siblings and often a 12 year old may be found admonishing his older sister on what he thinks is inappropriate behaviour: talking or laughing loud, looking out of the window etc. The mother, instead of scolding the son will simply laugh it off. This is happening even today. I myself was shocked to hear that whereas the number of boys in a class in Government schools was around 40, the number of girls in equivalent classes was often above 100. The reason is simple. Boys are sent to public schools which are considered better than state run ones. These schools charge fees that the parents happily pay for their sons. The daughters are sent to the State school which is free. That is one aspect of the problem that needs to be addressed.

You will think that this has no relevance to crime rates but please bear with me.

We now need to move to another reality altogether. I am talking of a new class of metropolis dwellers that has grown by quantum leaps in the past 20 to 30 years. This is the migrant population either brought by contractors to meet construction labour needs - this has also happened in western countries - or families of have left their villages in search of a better future for their children. These are mostly illiterate families with strict traditions that they adhere to. Today children of these families have grown up with their own dreams and aspirations which clash with their parent's traditional views. These young people have urban aspirations that are fed by what they see on TV as a television is a must in the humblest of homes and with the advent of credit facilities, people living in slums are able to acquire most of what their kids want.

The TV serials and Bollywood films of today are very different from the films of yore years that extolled values like family and traditions. Today's movies are highly westernised and seed impossible dreams in the young minds that watch them. A new social group has emerged in cities and with poor quality education, few skills and little employment these youngsters are rudderless. They fall easy prey to drug mafias, gambling dens and political and religious groups always on the prowl for easy fodder.

Early marriage was and still is the preferred solution for raging hormones but the young people fed on TV viewing and urban realities resist these. Even the law has raised the minimum marriage age. Sex education is practically non existent in State run schools. The chapter on human reproduction barely addressed the biological process but does not touch on gender issues. Sex is never spoken of at home and these children have no mentors to go to. They are left on their own and the heady cocktail of partial knowledge, drugs and alcohol, misplaced conception of the position of a male vis-à-vis a female is a recipe for disaster. Another head to our monster!

Another reality that we do not take in consideration is also the change in the social profile of the western woman. Over the past years the colonial attitude that people of my age had to bear when a hippy with dreadlocks was attended to before you in a shop or restaurant has gone. With the emergence of a new super rich class in India who is always on the prowl for new ways of spending their money, one is witnessing the emergence of a new market for young girls from western countries.   Today it is fashionable to have a western lady shower flowers on your guests at the wedding of your son or daughter or even serve at a cocktail. Event planners do offer this service. And we all know about the IPL cheerleaders.

This has brought about a change in perception in the Indian mind one that can have unfortunate ramifications more so because unlike Europe, Indian men are not used to being refused. Blame it on their mothers!

I am sure there are many more reasons but these can at least put us in the right direction. So where is the solution if there is one.

The only thing that comes too my mind that can address the hydra headed monster is EDUCATION! I know it is not magical pill or panacea. I also know that it not a quick fix but will take time and patience but the only way to address all the issues at hand is education that begins at an early age at home and then in schools.

I cannot begin to imagine how many little girls and boys could be spared child sexual abuse if they were taught the notion of good touch/bad touch at home and taught to say no. How many women who not have to suffer the indignity of being told that they are incapable of producing sons, if the X Y chromosome story was told. How many youngsters would learn age appropriate sexual behaviour and   thus handle their teenage responsibly. The list is endless.

The question is how does one make this happen in a patriarchal society, with religious fanatics and politicians who are on the prowl to annihilate any reasonable programme.

Maybe what we need to ask for to counter rape is not the death penalty but healthy sexual education in schools and perhaps tourist guidebooks should include some information about the social realities of India and advised their clients on appropriate dressing and above all dealing with the opposite gender.

This could be a beginning.