India has been in an uproar for weeks over sexual violence against women. The brutal gang rape of a 23-year-old student on a bus in Delhi on Dec. 16, and her death from those injuries several days later, sparked a series of demonstrations here in the capital demanding action from police and politicians. The crime has turned a spotlight on discrimination against women in all its forms. This is the context in which a group of us from New York University are visiting India to learn about the movement to fight sex trafficking. The trip is organized by my colleague Ruchira Gupta, founder of Apne Aap, a nonprofit organization that works to empower women and girls to escape prostitution and rebuild their lives. We will meet with survivors, activists, officials and others. But first a few comments on how the gang rape and its political fall-out may change the picture for women's rights. "The issue has now got into front and center," Syeda Hameed, a member of the Indian Government's Planning Commission, told our group. "When we see people pouring out, there is some message we are getting," she said, adding that the Indian government has begun to respond to these protests in substantive ways. Hameed and 11 colleagues talked at length about proposed changes to law and new programs designed to aid marginalized girls and women. She noted that India has a long tradition of responding to grassroots movements, starting with Mohandas Gandhi's work, and that the important thing is not to let the energy on women's issues dissipate. Eve Ensler, the playwright and actress best known for The Vagina Monologues, called the protests "a breakthrough" during her show here on Monday. Ensler has been touring South Asia in recent weeks as part of her One Billion Rising campaign. The number is an estimate of women and girls who have been victims of sexual violence but also a call for women and men around the world to rise on Feb. 14 in hope of changing the picture. A dozen women's rights leaders fired up the audience during Ensler's show, which drew an overflowing crowd to one of Delhi's major theaters. When one of them called on the men in the audience to stand up, more than a quarter of the crowd immediately jumped to their feet. The protests have captured Indian and world attention, but long-time advocates of women's rights note the need to keep the movement on track. Ravi Kant, founder of Shakti Vahini, which fights human trafficking and violence against women, is concerned that the energy of the protests is being diverted into other issues, such as whether to change the age at which a person can be tried as an adult, because one of the accused rapists is said to be a juvenile.
"Once the protests end, we've got a big priority" on violence against women, he said. Fixing the justice system is his goal, he said, because cases take many years to complete, people lose faith in the system and politicians underfund the work of police and courts.
Shakti Vahini, which works with the police to raid brothels and rescue trafficking victims, has trained 225 police units on human trafficking issues. But Kant says much more training is needed. He views 80 percent of the police as "stick-wielding people" who use brute force rather than understanding of gender violence. He adds that groups like his get little funding from India's government and instead depend on foreign governments and charities.
Abhilasha Kumari sees another issue facing the re-energized movement for women's rights -- the coming backlash. Kumari, director of Apne Aap, is pleased that the anger that sparked protests has turned to demands to look at all aspects of violence against women.
"At the same time, you find a very conservative backlash waiting to happen -- politicians with conservative ideas who blame women," Kumari said, referring to comments by several prominent figures in India. "We have to be alert, very, very vigilant and ready for a long struggle. At least women are in a combative mood."