It is depressing to scan the morning news and be greeted by a raft of stories about horrific sexual assaults. But in a counter-intuitive way, this is a definite signal that India is becoming a better place. Sexual assaults have always been endemic. The default response has been to conceal the crime because, for some reason, the victim is supposed to feel ashamed. It is heartening that more victims are walking through that conditioning and reporting assaults.
Sexual assaults and, more broadly, violence against women and children are among the more enduring traditions unifying our heterogeneous nation. Many Indians think corporal punishment is a rational educational tool and marital rape is an oxymoron. Neighbours look the other way when there is a violent marital quarrel and nobody is likely to interfere if a child is thrashed by her parents. This is unfortunate since kids imitate their parents. A child reared in a violent household is far more likely to be a violent, abusive adult, or, at the least, more accepting of violence.
There are no quick fixes to this situation since it involves reformatting social attitudes. Things may well get worse. India is a society in transition. More women are joining the workforce and are hence visible in "unsafe" areas, in addition to facing age-old dangers of being raped at home. There is also a surplus of underemployed young men with excessive testosterone due to an adverse gender ratio.
The J S Verma Committee indicated possible directions for legislative action. But legislation will not, in itself, alter ingrained attitudes. Back in 1950, India legislated against dowry and caste discrimination. Dowry deaths are still common and Dalits still face discrimination. Laws against female foeticide were enacted in 1994, and yet gender ratios have declined.
Looking at global "best practices", there are some obvious areas where social mechanisms could be put in place to back legislation. One is a blanket ban on corporal punishment in schools and even, perhaps, the criminalisation of violence perpetrated by parents on their own children.
There should be a blanket order for the police to register all FIRs pertaining to sexual assault and violence against women, followed by expeditious investigation of such cases. Most First World nations employ a cadre of social workers, including psychiatrists and doctors, to handle messy family situations and sexual assaults. In the absence of such a cadre, it may help if the police are told to liaison with non-governmental organisations in the relevant spaces.
Another thing the state needs to do is to encourage the dissemination of pornography. Ideally, it would introduce sex education in schools since the data indicate that reduces pathological sexual behaviour. But this is politically impossible since a broad spectrum of leaders believe formal sex education is incompatible with Indian culture.
Hence, pornography is pretty much the only way for Indian youngsters to learn what goes where. The government not only needs to decriminalise the distribution of porn, it should set up channels to distribute the right kind of porn.
Yes, some pornography is violent. No, banning porn, as a recent petition to the Supreme Court demands, will not work because such a ban would be utterly unenforceable and a waste of resources. What may work (in the absence of sex on the syllabus) is the government selecting, grading and promoting porn that encourages healthy sexual behaviour. Much suitable content is already readily available and free to use. So it would actually be cheaper than commissioning textbooks.
It would be easy to implement such an initiative through the proper channels. A "Blue Department" could be set up by the health and family welfare ministry and headed by the joint secretary (Pornography). Officers could be deputed from the IT ministry and the Films Division of India to review technical details. A "Pornography Promotion Board" (PPB) could be formed to review and recommend suitable content. Political consensus on this could surely be reached by forming a joint parliamentary committee for an in-depth analysis of the issues.