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Still a crisis

One year on, gender issues are discussed - but far from solved

Business Standard Editorial Comment  |  New Delhi 

A year after the brutal and murder of a young paramedical student in New Delhi stunned and enraged India, too little has changed. That horrific crime caused many to realise that impatience among many of India's younger city dwellers had reached boiling point over the lack of for - and, indeed, over a broadly male-dominated, and sometimes misogynistic, culture in workplaces and in the wider culture. Since then, a spate of high-profile incidents in which men of position and power have been accused of abusing their position with subordinates have underlined the fact that the problem in India is not simply limited to any particular class.

Certainly, the widespread protests following the on last year - and the ham-handed and repressive response of the authorities, particularly in central Delhi - have created an opportunity for change where previously there was none. And in many ways the institutional response was indeed quick. The government set up a commission under a former Supreme Court chief justice, J S Verma, to investigate the laws governing the prosecution of sexual The report was wide-ranging, forward-looking and well-written. The government implemented many of the recommendations through an ordinance immediately, and then Parliament passed the changes into law. Given the political deadlock that has marked the past few years in India, this was commendable haste. Unfortunately, several important suggestions made by the commission were lost - such as the recommendation that all laws governing sexual be made gender-neutral.

However, the patchy implementation of sexual harassment guidelines - called the "Vishakha committees" after the legal case that gave rise to them - reveals that what is needed is more than law. Institutional support for India's is about more than lawmaking. And it is about more than the government. It needs an understanding, at all levels of the administrative machinery and in the private sector, that safer streets for women are not just their right but desirable for all Indians. No country has progressed economically while restricting its women - indeed, women being empowered in the workforce is a necessary precondition for economic take-off. The new voices, therefore, being raised in various locations that have warned that a younger generation of women have expectations of safer, less intimidating spaces at work and in public are welcome for more than one reason. The government and India Inc must not see these as objectionable or as obstacles to surmount, but as signs of hope and progress. The kind of thinking that was on display recently in which various well-placed and powerful people warned that women would no longer be hired if sexual harassment accusations became commonplace is exactly the sort of thinking that must be avoided, even condemned.

Governments, central and state, should focus on the basics: ensuring that first information reports about sexual crimes are registered, that policemen have sensitivity training, and that there are more women in positions of authority in law enforcement. But, in the end, the crucial change must come from the larger culture. And the reality is one year after protests rocked India, too little has changed in India's broader culture. It is still in crisis.

First Published: Mon, December 16 2013. 21:38 IST