The Delhi gang rape death sentences won't make India safer for women

The government has done little more than to satisfy the emotional sense of injustice, and hush up the masses temporarily while shying away from the bigger issue: how to prevent the crimes?

The fatal gang rape of a 23-year-old student on a bus in New Delhi last December caused global horror and outrage and forced India to step back and examine the ongoing war being waged against its women. Two weeks ago a high court judge passed death sentences on the four men convicted of the rape and murder, thereby appeasing a public majority who bayed for blood, calling for chemical castration and public hanging. Lawyers for the four have since launched an appeal against the sentence which could take weeks or even months, but one thing is for certain: even if they are executed, it will not make India a safer country for women.

For hundreds of thousands of Indian women their struggle begins within the womb. According to UN figures, an estimated 750,000 female foetuses are aborted annually, and even if they do make it past the first gauntlet, they face the threat of infanticide, starvation in favour of male siblings, and are likely to endure a life deprived of freedom, education and equality. For every 1,000 boys under the age of six there are only 914 girls, with some states reporting figures as low as 830. India’s Planning Commission called the gender imbalance “a silent demographic disaster in the making” which is already beginning to manifest itself in the form of increased sexual violence, polyandry – where brothers marry the same woman – and a surge in poorer parents trafficking daughters as brides in areas where the female to male ratio is skewed.

In the days leading up to the sentencing an astonishing level of brutality emerged from the Indian public who demanded stoning, lashings, and castration for the convicts, with even high-profile names calling for the death penalty in order to set a precedent and act as a deterrent against future crimes. While it is easy for us in the West to shake our heads and theorise that brutality can’t be fought with brutality, for most women in this country gang rape isn’t a worry when we step out of our front doors and commute to work. My biggest fear is that the Jubilee line might be down – not that I might end up gang raped and beaten to death on a moving bus.

However, by passing the death sentence, the government has done little more than to satisfy the emotional sense of injustice, and hush up the masses temporarily while shying away from the bigger issue: how to prevent the crimes? Rather than focusing on how to treat the symptoms once they bubble to the surface and burst like ugly boils, the root cause needs to be examined and removed.

India is fundamentally a country permeated with both violent language and a violent mentality. From early childhood, phrases such as “I’ll thrash you”, and “I’ll give you such a tight slap” are commonplace, bandied around by both parents and teachers alike. Few can claim not to have been on the receiving end of physical violence from family members and many who suffer at the hands of violence go on to perform similar acts themselves. Ninety per cent of sexual attackers are known to their victims, dispelling the myth of attackers as evil monsters, far removed from you and me. If the death penalty were invoked more often, India would have to accept that there would be many brothers, fathers, grandfathers, co-workers and neighbours swinging from the gallows. And what then of family honour, so often called into question when a daughter is raped, but not when a son has done the raping.

Society has to set the standards by which it wants to live and what hope does India have when its own lawmakers set a horrifying example? A Reuters report revealed last week that the cabinet has passed an executive order to protect politicians found guilty of crimes, which could allow convicted lawmakers to stay in office and stand in elections. Since India’s last general election in 2009, an estimated 30% of lawmakers had criminal charges against them, which included rape and murder.

To chip away at the patriarchal and misogynistic mentality, education on gender equality has to begin at the grass-roots level, within homes and primary schools, and be reinforced with a strong and sustained anti-violence government-funded campaign on television and in cinemas for those who don’t attend schools. The four convicted in the Delhi rape case were all illiterate and had to sign documents with their thumbprints, but they were probably familiar with the latest Bollywood films whose stars could easily be called upon to back such campaigns. It might seem like trying to empty the sea with a teaspoon, but India has already shown that it is capable of achieving the impossible with targeted education. A polio-eradication programme launched in 1985 seemed a futile venture, attempting to wipe out polio from a country as vast and over-populated as India, but with politicians, activists and volunteers, the country has now been polio-free for over a year.

Ultimately the conversation must continue. Since the Delhi gang rape the discussion over each newly reported rape has subsided faster and faster with social media moving swiftly on to lamenting the fall in the rupee or arguing over India’s foreign film entry to the Oscars, while the everyday rapes, acid attacks, domestic abuse and violence continue quietly in the background.

Members of the Karnataka State Youth Congress, some of them wearing masks of the four convicted rapists, enact a mock execution following the sentencing in New Delhi of four men convicted of rape and murder. Photo:Getty.
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Our union backed Brexit, but that doesn't mean scrapping freedom of movement

We can only improve the lives of our members, like those planning stike action at McDonalds, through solidarity.

The campaign to defend and extend free movement – highlighted by the launch of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement this month – is being seen in some circles as a back door strategy to re-run the EU referendum. If that was truly the case, then I don't think Unions like mine (the BFAWU) would be involved, especially as we campaigned to leave the EU ourselves.

In stark contrast to the rhetoric used by many sections of the Leave campaign, our argument wasn’t driven by fear and paranoia about migrant workers. A good number of the BFAWU’s membership is made up of workers not just from the EU, but from all corners of the world. They make a positive contribution to the industry that we represent. These people make a far larger and important contribution to our society and our communities than the wealthy Brexiteers, who sought to do nothing other than de-humanise them, cheered along by a rabid, right-wing press. 

Those who are calling for end to freedom of movement fail to realise that it’s people, rather than land and borders that makes the world we live in. Division works only in the interest of those that want to hold power, control, influence and wealth. Unfortunately, despite a rich history in terms of where division leads us, a good chunk of the UK population still falls for it. We believe that those who live and work here or in other countries should have their skills recognised and enjoy the same rights as those born in that country, including the democratic right to vote. 

Workers born outside of the UK contribute more than £328 million to the UK economy every day. Our NHS depends on their labour in order to keep it running; the leisure and hospitality industries depend on them in order to function; the food industry (including farming to a degree) is often propped up by their work.

The real architects of our misery and hardship reside in Westminster. It is they who introduced legislation designed to allow bosses to act with impunity and pay poverty wages. The only way we can really improve our lives is not as some would have you believe, by blaming other poor workers from other countries, it is through standing together in solidarity. By organising and combining that we become stronger as our fabulous members are showing through their decision to ballot for strike action in McDonalds.

Our members in McDonalds are both born in the UK and outside the UK, and where the bosses have separated groups of workers by pitting certain nationalities against each other, the workers organised have stood together and fought to win change for all, even organising themed social events to welcome each other in the face of the bosses ‘attempts to create divisions in the workplace.

Our union has held the long term view that we should have a planned economy with an ability to own and control the means of production. Our members saw the EU as a gravy train, working in the interests of wealthy elites and industrial scale tax avoidance. They felt that leaving the EU would give the UK the best opportunity to renationalise our key industries and begin a programme of manufacturing on a scale that would allow us to be self-sufficient and independent while enjoying solid trading relationships with other countries. Obviously, a key component in terms of facilitating this is continued freedom of movement.

Many of our members come from communities that voted to leave the EU. They are a reflection of real life that the movers and shakers in both the Leave and Remain campaigns took for granted. We weren’t surprised by the outcome of the EU referendum; after decades of politicians heaping blame on the EU for everything from the shape of fruit to personal hardship, what else could we possibly expect? However, we cannot allow migrant labour to remain as a political football to give succour to the prejudices of the uninformed. Given the same rights and freedoms as UK citizens, foreign workers have the ability to ensure that the UK actually makes a success of Brexit, one that benefits the many, rather than the few.

Ian Hodon is President of the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union and founding signatory of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement.