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All Women Deserve our Respect

I had the great fortune of ringing in the New Year in India, thanks to my wonderful family who loves to travel. In addition to rediscovering how delicious and picturesque Indian food is, I also had a chance to be in the country during protests related to a violent gang rape, talk to people, and think about how important it is that respect for women be a part of every culture.

Channa masala and a samosa. Yum!
Channa masala and a samosa. Yum!

Immediately after stepping off the plane in Delhi, we were bombarded with news coverage, discussion, advertisements and even tourism signs addressing the story (honestly – the first sign my sister and I saw upon stepping out of baggage claim was one that said “Welcome to India! :) Many different kinds of bears live in India. :( Not strict enough rape laws.” What an interesting way to greet tourists…).

Signs on the drive from the Delhi airport
Signs on the drive from the Delhi airport

We were greeted by Delhi police barricading our every route to popular sites, stories of police brutality, the particulars of the girl’s white blood cell count, and tour guides, bus drivers, and locals alike in every city and region we visited consumed with the tragedy that had happened to this girl.

Sadly, this is only one of many stories of rape in India and traditional societies, and they typically go unnoticed. The tradition of arranged marriages by caste and paying a dowry for wives is still alive and well, particularly in the rural parts of the country. In rural India, these rape cases are so common that one involving a teenage girl kept imprisoned and naked for five days was simply listed in a newspaper as one of “Four more rape cases.” And the number of reported rapes has increased in India over the past 10 years by 50%.

Police barricades in Delhi
Police barricades in Delhi

Things are usually marginally better for women in the cities, but not by much – Avantika Shukla, a student in Delhi, talked to the Washington Post about the challenges she faces on a daily basis – leering men, having to take longer, busier routes that may be safer, and policemen charged with protecting her instead staring at her in a way that makes her uncomfortable. Even in my two weeks in India, I experienced a taste – my blonde hair and fair skin made me stick out like a sore thumb, and I had men staring me down from passing cars and at every monument, and one even groped my chest while walking past me on the street. My sister also experienced a barrage of men staring at her and getting a little too close. And that was with our protective native Texan father one step behind us at all times!

My family in Mumbai
My family in Mumbai

Avantika Shukla summed it up for the Post when she said: “It is always a woman’s fault somehow. The woman should have been more careful, she shouldn’t have worn that, she shouldn’t have gone out at that time, she shouldn’t have drawn attention to herself. When will all this change?”

With the suspects in the Delhi gang rape case pleading not guilty and their lawyer blaming the victims – he said he has never heard of a “respected lady” being raped – this is an important reminder of how vital it is that respect for women be in the core framework of the laws and culture of every country.

While America is more developed in some ways, we’re far from shining beacons of how to respect women:

  • The frequency and statistics about rape are shockingly high - 15-20% of women in the United States have experienced rape at least once in their lifetime so far, 91% of rape victims are female, and 99% of rapists are male.
  • Our politicians continually display a complete lack of understanding about women and their bodies, such as U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey of Georgia, who last week said that former Rep. Todd Akin was “partly right” when he said that female bodies have a way to “shut [the pregnancy] down” if it’s a “legitimate” rape.
  • Women represent nearly two-thirds of minimum wage workers, and the federal minimum wage leaves women with two children thousands of dollars below the poverty line.
  • The economic recovery for women has picked up in recent months, but unemployment rates remain high.
  • Nearly six in ten poor adults are women, and poverty rates are particularly high for women of color, single mothers, and elderly women living alone.
  • Women who work full-time, year-round are still only paid 77 cents to the dollar to their male counterparts.
  • Many schools across the country are still not providing equal opportunities for girls to participate in sports as they are required to under Title IX.
  • Women are still missing from leadership positions across the board – making up an average of only 18% of all leadership positions across a variety of sectors, including only 42 female CEOs on the 2012 Fortune 1000 list. November’s election left us with a record-breaking 98 women in Congress – which is still only 18% of all 535 members of Congress.

India is a developing country with a long way to go, but it’s important to remember how far we have to go here at home as well. Respect for women is something that must be across the board. When women are seen and treated as equals in society, that will translate to the homes and lives of every American – and one day hopefully every Indian.