India rape cases show a sexual revolution is needed – education is where to start
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India rape cases show a sexual revolution is needed – education is where to start

IN the last few weeks, two grisly reports of rapes in India dominated the headlines. The first was the investigation into the Kathua rape which occurred in Jammu and Kashmir in January this year.

Eight-year-old Asifa Bano’s body was found with signs of torture, legs broken with marks of physical and sexual abuse. The investigations revealed that the crime was planned by a 60-year-old retired government officer, his son and his son’s friend, with help of police officers.

These seven men kidnapped, sedated and raped this eight-year-old child for days before murdering her. Hardly had this story broken, when another body surfaced in Surat – an 11-year-old, had been raped, tortured and strangled to death – with her body testifying to at least 86 injury marks.

SEE ALSO: Protests erupt across India over rape of children

India tightened its laws on rape, and this week passed the death penalty for rapists of girls below the age of 12. Many applauded this ‘strong-armed’ move, however activists fear that such laws would only ensure that predators seek more vulnerable victims, and cause more gruesome crimes because dead women tell no tales.

But, the tightening of laws only serves to treat the symptoms – not the root causes. So what really lies at the heart of rape in India, and how do we really treat it?

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A woman reacts at a protest against the rape of an eight-year-old girl, in Kathua, near Jammu and a teenager in Unnao, Uttar Pradesh state, in New Delhi, India April 12, 2018. Source: Reuters/Cathal McNaughton

The culmination of rape and sexual assault is only one of the manifestations of many other sexual and gender-based violence that girls and women experience in India. It is built-up on multiple social phenomena – almost unique to South Asia – but entrenched throughout social institutions.

Eve-teasing, stalking as a sign of love, violence as a means to demonstrate both power and love, coerced love and sex and frotteurism are common experiences in the public space, and some of these are repeatedly portrayed in movies and songs.

At the centre of this sanctioned behaviour are these perceived premises: one, women exist primarily for the use, service and sexual release of men; two, whether women consent or are capable of giving consent is not a consideration in sexual behaviour or sexual acts. All of these are reminders of gender inequality and the low status of women in Indian society.

So how and when do we start establishing this dialogue between the sexes?

The answer lies in comprehensive sexuality education (CSE). There is a basic need for CSE to over-turn some of these deep set patriarchal norms – especially in a country where sexual violence is so high. Currently, this type of education is not consistently implemented in all the states in India and is not comprehensive in accordance with UN guidelines.

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CSE teaches young girls and boys about affirmative sexuality and informed consent and equips them with life skills, like negotiation, and non-discriminatory values, such as gender identity in a relationship.

It gives them accurate info on sexual and reproductive rights and sexual and reproductive health, which empowers and provides agency to young people to assert these rights.

At the heart of CSE, is also gender education which tackles gender discrimination and sexual violence. This education can help correct injustices and address patriarchal norms that subjugate women and girls.

Popularly known as the Adolescent Education Programme (AEP) in India, this initiative was introduced in 2007 to educate young people on important personal and social issues in schools.

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People shout slogans and hold placards during a protest against the rape of an eight-year-old girl, in Kathua, near Jammu and a teenager in Unnao, Uttar Pradesh state, in Mumbai, India April 13, 2018. Source: Reuters/Francis Mascarenhas

Despite initially being banned in several states after teachers and parents protested, citing inappropriate content, the programme was rolled out in select government and private schools for children from Grades 8-11 in partnership with the UN Population Fund (UNFPA).

While AEP covers important topics, such as body image, positive relationships, gender and sexuality, violence and abuse, and sexually transmitted diseases; it didn’t discuss relationships, negotiation and consent in the context of an intimate or sexual relationship, neither outside nor inside the institution of marriage.

We need to teach girls and women that their bodies are worthy of respect, that they can set boundaries for what may or may not be done to their bodies, and they can negotiate romantic and sexual relations with their partners.

We need to enable boys and men to understand that girls and women are autonomous human beings, who desire, seek pleasure and love out of their own accord; who have boundaries and who are able and capable of giving consent to relations. And that that consent needs to be sought. Every single time.

Sexual revolution is a real necessity: where we women are considered as holders of our own sexuality, that we are perceived as autonomous human beings who desire, love and seek pleasure. In which we are able to negotiate with men terms of that desire, love and pleasure. And consent is central to that mutual achievement of pleasure.

With this comes the understanding that women and girls have boundaries, and that these boundaries are to be recognised and respected by ourselves and our partners

The general discourse around protective measures is a reminder that the bodies of girls and women are weaker, and can be utilised, punished and shamed with sexual violence. After all, we live in a society where outspoken women are threatened with rape.

SEE ALSO: : India has 63 million fewer women than it should have

Most protective measures seek to curb both the movement and freedom of girls and women. The reminder that we are the ‘weaker’ sex, and that our bodies are vulnerable to sexual violence does little to overturn the current equation.

The answer lies in giving girls greater rather than limited freedom. To give girls access to sports, to let us experience our bodies are houses of power rather than weakness. To give girls access to self-defence and martial arts programmes to be able to overcome any predator. To give girls the idea that we are swift, agile, strong, nimble, sharp and we can stay safe goes a long way in changing perceptions of what it means to be a girl in such an unsafe society.

Until we are able to perceive girls and women as owning and having agency over their own bodies, we will not be able to turn the tide on the grisly and gruesome sexual assault and rape cases that take place on a daily basis.

Sivananthi Thanenthiran is the Executive Director of the Asian Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women (ARROW). She has co-authored “Reclaiming & Redefining Rights: The Status of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights in Asia and the Pacific” in 2009 and 2013. She has presented papers on sexual and reproductive health and rights at the UN in Bangkok and New York.