July 25, 2013
A Long Way to Go
By Anjali Gopalan
Founder and Executive Director, Naz Foundation (Time 100, 2012)

A young woman was brutally raped on a New Delhi bus and eventually died of her wounds. Unprecedented public outrage soon followed. Prominent advocate Anjali Gopalan argues that until India looks at itself in the mirror, violence against women will not stop.

In 2012, when a 23-year-old woman was beaten and gang-raped on a bus in New Delhi, India reacted in horror and outrage. But perhaps the horror was so deeply felt, and the outrage so widespread, because the victim, who later died of her wounds, was an educated, middle-class woman with whom a lot of the urban elite could identify.

It’s a disturbing possibility, but it’s one that must be faced in a country where uneducated women living in poverty have traditionally been the victims of rape. It must be considered amid a social order that offers the starkest of contrasts between the lives of the privileged and the penniless. It must be discussed in a society that takes pains to avoid talking about its sexuality.

This was not the first gang rape to happen in New Delhi, and it won’t be the last.

This was not the first gang rape to happen in New Delhi, and it won’t be the last. But this incident did trigger a different kind of thinking. It was interesting to see a lot of young men respond – to see them come out and be part of the protests. It may have changed the way people regard rape, or it may have simply been an outpouring of support. But it was good that it happened. And it was about time.

At least we’re beginning to think about it now in India, and seeing what we can do to improve matters. How much we’re able to achieve is another thing, because it’s open to question whether the political will exists within India’s corrupt and dysfunctional parliament to make meaningful change.

Meanwhile, there are a lot of entrenched attitudes about sex to overcome in India. I have encountered many of them during my work as a sexual-health educator.

One huge obstacle is that sexuality doesn’t get discussed. Giving out information that’s candid, open, and honest is problematic. We are one of the most sexually active cultures on this planet, but we don’t want to talk about it. I see this constantly, especially in the context of men having sex with men.

I do a lot of counseling of families of gay men, and often hear parents say, “What does it matter? Let him get married. What he does after that is his business, as long as he gets married and produces a son.” What does this say about our culture? The pressure on men in India to get married and have children can be overwhelming.

And what about accepting lesbianism in a patriarchal society, because nothing challenges patriarchy more than a woman saying she doesn’t need a man? These are questions that don’t get aired.

It will be hard to change a society in which traditional sexual attitudes are so entrenched.

It will be hard to change a society in which traditional sexual attitudes are so entrenched. We have to work at many levels. We have to work with community groups. We have to work with people one-on-one. We have to try to change the law, as we did when we challenged Section 377 – India’s anti-sodomy legislation. We have to dispel the myth that female children are somehow worth less than male children. None of these things will be achieved overnight.

The way societies think about women or their more vulnerable populations like children, gay people, or transgendered people, or even about how they treat their animals, is an indication of what type of society they are. India doesn’t score very highly on this scale.

Still, India is seen as an emerging economy – as a country that’s doing very well economically. But in every city I visit, in every town I go to, I see children on street corners begging. So, we haven’t even been able to take care of our children. They are not going to school. They don’t have a childhood. What does this say about us as a people? Those who have money here have obscene amounts of it, yet the majority of people don’t know where their next meal is coming from.

I believe it is the right of every person to live an equitable life. Every transgendered person has the right to be a citizen. Every woman has the right to live in a safe environment. Every gay and lesbian individual has the right to live the life they want for themselves.

Photo credit: Saurabh Das/Associated Press

Anjali GopalanAnjali Gopalan is the founder and executive director of the Naz Foundation (India) Trust, an NGO that focuses on HIV/AIDS and sexual health. Time Magazine recognized her work in 2012 by naming her one of the world’s 100 most influential people. She was also named a Knight in the Order of the Legion of Honour by the French government this year.