India is well into the 21st century, and has been a sovereign Independent nation for over 70 years now and yet her daughters are unwanted, unequal, unfree and unsafe! Unsafe in the womb, at home and on the streets! Nearly a million girls are killed in the womb each year, 2 raped every hour on the streets and we don’t have numbers for how many are raped at home by the men in their families – uncles, fathers and husbands! India ranks 141 out of 144 countries in the world for women’s health and survival, according to a World Economic Forum report and it has been declared by some as amongst the 5 most dangerous countries for girls and women on this planet.
As an Indian and a woman, I can only hang my head in shame and I am sure many of my brothers and sisters feel the same shame and pain. At the root of this is a deep rooted, widely pervasive misogyny, a cruel patriarchal social structure leading to systemic sexist oppression and violence of women. While we are all enormously concerned about terror threats real and imagined, why are we not equally concerned about the fact that our daughters, mothers, sisters and wives live under threat of terror every day of their lives?
What are we doing about this shameful and dangerous situation? At Study Hall Educational Foundation, we take this matter very seriously and deal with it in our official curriculum. We think critically about and discuss gender discrimination, sexist oppression, patriarchy and engage in critical dialogues about all the aspects of gender, as part of our official curriculum with the goal of changing the mindsets of our students from early childhood, in the hope of raising a future generation who will construct a society which allow our girls to feel wanted, safe, equal and free!
Our students, in Study Hall, Prerna Girls School and Vidyasthali discuss issues like violence against women and sexual violence more specifically – whether at home or in public places. We help both girls and boys see that this violence is systemic and structural – i.e., it has a certain social sanction which is why it happens with so much impunity. Srushti – a class XI student of Study Hall said, “Rape isn’t taken seriously and often considered a ‘mistake’ rather than a criminal violation.” We engage boys and girls in critical dialogues so that they realise that girls are not accorded full human status and are still perceived largely as reproductive and sexual beings. The logic of the rapist is simply this – “Girls are primarily sexual objects – so why should they not be used for sex whenever possible? Objects have no volition or will, so why is their willingness important at all?” This perception of girls as sexual objects with no will is further strengthened by the fact that marriage at any age, even as young as 11 or 12, gives a husband full ownership over his wife’s body, and he can have sex with her whenever he chooses, regardless of her consent, this is sanctioned by religion, social custom and law.
We work at getting our boys and girls to see that this social, religious and traditional view of girls and women is very WRONG! It is not only unjust and extremely cruel, it is a violation of their rights as human beings and democratic citizens. We work at teaching our boys especially, that women are equal persons deserving respect, just as men are, and that they have a sovereign right over their bodies throughout their lives – EVEN WHEN THEY ARE MARRIED!! Their husbands never own them, or their bodies. They have no right to have sex with them, or even touch their bodies without their consent, and husbands have the same right over their bodies. We teach our boys and girls to think EQUAL.
Furthermore, we teach our students to think hard and long about this concept of ‘izzat’ or honour, especially as it applies to a girls sexual behaviour. Firstly why is a girls ‘izzat’ so closely defined by her sexual conduct? Secondly when a girl is raped, how does she lose her ‘izzat’, when she did not consent to the sexual encounter? She was violated and yet she carries the burden of tarnishing her own izzat and that of her family? How does this make sense? This ‘izzat’ argument is not only logically faulty it is so unfair!! We get our boys and girls to understand this! Sandhya, a class 12 student from Prerna Girls School says, “Why should a girl be ashamed about her rape? How was it her fault? She should live her life with full respect and her head held high even after her rape. Society has no right to make her feel guilty or ashamed. It is because of this wrong thinking that many rapes in families are hushed up, because people are afraid that the family will be dishonoured, and who will then marry the girl. We girls should raise our voice against this.”
We get our boys to look carefully at their own perception of ‘masculinity’ or mardangi especially in the context of how it relates to girls and sex. We help them question many ‘givens’. Our boys say that the problem lies with the way in which boys are raised – “ While every step of girls is monitored carefully and minutely, no one ever talks to us about our sexual conduct.” Pranshu, one of our class xi student says, “Boys are socialised into being aggressive in sex and exercising power over girls.” He added – “It is the very repressive sexual norms in our society that are also at fault. Boys take out their frustrations by doing such heinous things.”The girls said – “Boys look at girls as sex objects, you should hear how they talk about us, even boys from good families.” Radhika, a class xi student from Studyhall said –“Our scriptures and mythology is also supporting boys superiority and the view of girls as primarily sexual beings.”
While suggesting solutions – All the students thought that social mindsets about sex, boys and girls roles must change. Srushti said – “Boys must be made to question their behaviour and their attitude towards sex and girls”. Radhika thinks that “girls too must learn to be more critical about their own attitudes. Often they too find these aggressive boys more attractive.” The students also feel that media should be more responsible about portraying girls and women as sexual objects. “Actresses should refuse to do these ‘item’ numbers”. All the students think that sex should be discussed more openly in schools and at home, so that all these matters can be discussed critically. That is how mindsets will change.
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