Can We Be Fearless? Gang Rape in India Inspires Action, But Challenges Persist

Hundreds of Bangladeshi women activists stand before the national parliament building to protest crime against women in Dhaka
Hundreds of Bangladeshi women activists stand before the national parliament building to protest crime against women in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013. Indian police have badly beaten the five suspects in the brutal rape and killing of the young woman on a New Delhi bus, the lawyer for three of the men said Thursday, accusing authorities of tampering with evidence in the case that has transfixed India. Placard second left reads as, "Stop crime against women." (AP Photo/ Pavel Rahman)

I traveled home to India over Christmas to spend time with family -- a time that should be filled with cheer. Yet this trip has been overshadowed by the terrible, horrific gang rape of a young Indian woman.

At first, I could not get myself to write about it. The details are just too revolting. And as more information emerges and fills the pages of the newspapers here day in and day out, I have felt sick. It would be easy to be disheartened and pessimistic. Here's a young woman brutally violated and beaten by six men, left on the road unaided, passed by people who did not offer help, who ultimately lost her battle to survive.

Not only is her story heartbreaking, but one feels crushed that we, as a worldwide community, have been working on improving the rights of girls and women for so long -- yet these kinds of atrocities continue.

However, the fact that this gang rape is raising huge attention in India, and around the world, is important to note. In many ways, it's a sea change.

Both women and men -- yes, men! -- are standing up and saying, "This is unacceptable."

Their protests are reminiscent of the 19th century, when a few brave men led the fight against sati (the practice of burning a woman on her husband's funeral pyre), against child marriage, and for girls' education and in support of widow remarriage. That was a time when it would have been nearly impossible for women to make such demands without significant risks.

It's inspiring to see women standing strong so publicly today. And the fact that many more men from all walks of life are standing up openly is also a significant sign of progress. A well-known Indian actor whose screen image revolves around his manifestation of machismo said: I feel ashamed to be a man today.

People are protesting in the streets, taking action through media, including social media, to demand justice and attention not just for this case, but for all women who continue to face sexual harassment, gender-based violence and sexual violence. That spirit must be encouraged.

But there's a long way to go.

The sad truth is that we are nowhere close to where we need to be on ending all forms of violence against women. Not only are there cases like these -- brutal and public -- there are also more devious means of harassment and bullying. Violence against women is getting more and more sophisticated and insidious. It's verbal, it's sexual, it's physical and it's manifested in a variety of ways.

We know sexual violence is a pervasive issue, not just in India, but in countries around the world. Just look at the discussion happening in the United States right now about Steubenville, Ohio and the young girl whose sexual assault was documented on Twitter and Instagram. Society cannot say it only happens once in a while and only in some parts of the world.

Sadly, this is happening everywhere.

So what can we do?

We need to be talking not just about how we punish these actions, but about how we prevent this from happening. We must talk about changes in cultural norms, in India and around the world. We must talk about increasing respect for women with no tie to what time they travel, who they are with, what clothes they wear, whether they've been drinking or what their sexual history is.

Sexual harassment in any form, at any point in time, under any circumstances is unacceptable. Period. That should be the norm.

I hope that the tragedy of the young woman's death in India, whom many are calling Nirbhaya, "the fearless one," will not be in vain but, rather, inspire fearlessness for all of us -- women and men -- to take action.

Fearlessness to say "this has happened to me" and to speak out when one sees it happening. To hold perpetrators, communities and leaders accountable. To stop defining masculinity through violence. And fearlessness to end violence against women for good.