20th May 2015
Last night I watched India’s Daughter, Leslee Udwin’s film about the gang-rape of Jyoti Singh, a 23 year old student from Delhi. In December 2012 she was travelling home by bus after watching a film with a male friend. She was so brutally attacked that she died of her injuries two weeks later. Four men were sentenced to death for their part in her murder.
Before I joined SafeLives, I spent several months working in Delhi for a charity battling sexual and domestic violence. India’s Daughter made me catch my breath for many reasons. The situation in India is different to here, but not as different as we might like to think.
Abuse in the home
All of Joyti’s rapists grew up with consistent violence in their family homes. Thanks to research by academics like Eamon McCrory and Emma Howarth, we know more than ever about the impact of living with domestic abuse on children’s development. This is echoed in our own research. And earlier this year we called for all statutory agencies to improve their understanding of abuse to find affected families as soon as possible. We need to create the system where we get it right first time, for every family member.
A culture of blame
One of the men who raped Joyti, Mukesh Singh, is interviewed in the film. Speaking from prison, he expresses bewilderment that he has been treated so harshly. He shakes his head: “Everybody does it. If I have to be punished, why aren’t they punished?” A 2014 survey reported that over 70% of Indian men believe hitting their wife was acceptable if she didn’t look after the children to their satisfaction.
We might feign shock at these statements, but we have no grounds to be complacent. In the UK, only a small proportion of those who have committed violent acts against their partner or ex-partner will ever go to prison. And those who do are not likely to serve long sentences. Criminal justice is only one measure of punishment but, when it comes to domestic abuse, we’re short on alternatives. While victims need to be identified and get the right help sooner, it’s also time we focus on challenging the perpetrators to change their behaviour.
The role of police
In Jyoti Singh’s case, the police quickly identified and arrested the perpetrators, but this isn’t the experience of most Delhiites. Many women in Delhi refuse point blank to go to the police who often share in and perpetuate the outdated prejudices about a woman’s place and her responsibility to modesty.
We have come a long, long way in the UK. I’ve seen first-hand the commitment of many police officers to improve their response to what, in previous years, might have been dismissed as ‘just a domestic’. I’m proud that SafeLives has worked with the College of Policing and Women’s Aid to create a new training package for frontline police officers to strengthen their understanding of abuse. I was delighted to read recently about joint patrols by local police officers and domestic abuse workers. And I hope that as we help HMIC do their re-inspection of forces this year, we’ll see the marked improvement called for in their 2013 report Everyone’s Business.
The discussion about sexual and domestic violence in India caught fire after Jyoti Singh died. But I know from my own time in Delhi that there’s a danger that words like rape, abuse and violence are used so often that they lose their meaning. In the UK, the statistic of 2 women a week dying at the hands of a partner or ex-partner is so well-worn that it barely raises an eyebrow. That’s why we shouldn’t be complacent. We need to constantly find new ways to show the grinding reality of lives dominated by fear of verbal, physical and emotional attack.
India’s Daughter is currently banned by the Indian government. It’s shameful that a government could rush to ban a film while having no national strategy to tackle the problem it exposes. After the death of Jyoti, men and women across India took to the streets, calling for equality and campaigning for women’s rights. This energy and well-directed anger of Indians who refuse to accept the current situation should inspire us all. There’s still a long way to go before families in the UK – and abroad – can live in safety. But more change can come, we can all do better.