Dear Mr. Akhilesh Yadav,
I write an open letter to you on behalf of millions of men and women around the world and especially on behalf of the average Indian who will be 29 years of age in seven years. You have the power to turn Ballia’s grief into a national movement.
Declare Ballia a rape-free district
That would be the start of an urgently needed course-correction in our development model that invites women to join the work-force and rapes them when they do. The death-ride in the New Delhi bus of a girl-child from Ballia has entered the international vocabulary as you acknowledged. “The Delhi incident was gruesome. Such an incident has never been reported from anywhere in the world”, you said while visiting the victim’s family in Medwara.
Make her village a national, even an international, model of a hamlet that shows rapists and other criminals you mean business. If Montgomery, Alabama was an important turning point in the building of a non-racial society in the United States of America in 1955 http://www.thehenryford.org/exhibits/rosaparks/story.asp, the call from Medwara could be where potential India and political India come together to define a new language about the safety of people who hold up half the sky. Rosa Parks – the black lady who sat in the white section of the bus – wrote that as a young girl she would see buses taking white children to school as she and her black friends walked. She thought it was normal till she grew up. India’s democratic dividend has grown up. Its arms are getting longer, its feet nimbler, it has cell phones and it is unafraid of telling politicians what it thinks is normal and what is not.
The bus or the cycle, which is your campaign vehicle, are symbols and metaphors that cannot be overstated. The bus is where the dastardly rape took place, a bus is what people take to go to school, work and seek better prospects. Cycles are what connect little villages to the main road. As young India writes its own history of which upward mobility is an important part, I believe we can and will stand together on this issue.
As per the National Crime Bureau, there were 19,010 cases of violence against women in your state, Uttar Pradesh (2010-2011). We do not believe this adequately reflects the reality, but that is not the point. The bigger point is that your state plays a key role in who will be India’s next Prime Minister.
While experts – legal, medical, political pundits and law enforcement officers – explain what rape is, an opportunity has presented itself to you about the most important and largely ignored aspect of this violence – prevention. Sustained prevention campaigns work and some of it is explained in a piece in The Hoot http://www.thehoot.org/web/storypage/6517-1-1-21-true.html which I attach for your ready reference. When evidence-based media advocacy meets intelligent politics, the ground can shift.
Publicly available information shows that Ballia is a poor district situated in eastern Uttar Pradesh. To ready it for your visit, one additional district magistrate, three magistrates of lower ranks, two superintendent engineers and more than a dozen engineers and junior engineers of the Public Works Department (PWD) shuttled between Ballia town and the village. Development may have skipped the village, but that is not the case with the town.
Where do you begin? It’s quite simple. Start with the victims, the women you invited in large numbers to vote with a song that said “…jago re jago, sakhiyan aur saheliyan” (arise friends) on the official website of Ballia district http://ballia.nic.in/default.asp. This was no bhajan-mandali. It was a call to action, set to local musical flourishes. The record number of women who came out to vote for you could turn every village, road, block, street in Uttar Pradesh into rape-free zones. We have not had a national women’s movement in the recent past.
Music is a powerful vehicle for advocacy. It fired our Independence movement. Its potential for retention and recall belies conventional logic, its universality can be contagious. Invite women to develop the music of prevention, not by asking women to stay home after dark but by ensuring that streets and bus stops are well-lit, for example. Mahila samitis listed on the website are perfect settings to develop a conversation that speaks not just of economic freedom, but of the meaninglessness of that freedom if it is not accompanied by safety and security for women. Include them in deciding how they want to protect their immediate environment. What are their daily problems? Who do they turn to when they need advice on contraception, pregnancy, motherhood, adolescence or being stalked and terrorised? These are trust-based relationships which, when properly unleashed, expand the power of prevention as naturally as night follows day.
Imagine the power of prevention of a simple poster campaign which says “yahan balatkariyon ko kadi saza milti hai” (rapists get strict punishment here). Imagine the power of prevention of a song on the Ballia website which, this time around, calls upon residents to remain vigilant and report rapes. Not only will it empower women, it will reverberate around people in all political parties including yours who have been charged with rape and other crimes, about what is in store for them.
You could also install a national rape clock there. One reported rape every 22 minutes. It will serve as a national reminder that at any given time somewhere in India, a woman is getting raped or sexually assaulted and killed.
Societal apathy and indifference are vectors we need to address urgently. No government on earth has the resources to prevent rapes. But every government has the power to instill fear and respect for law. Empowered individuals will seize the context and clear the space around them for prevention to take roots and grow. Rosa Parks didn’t dream of becoming an icon. Circumstances, both personal and external, courage and conviction led her to it.
Why am I telling a seasoned politician what to do? Because, like millions of other Indians, I believe this is a time for reckoning. Let us all jointly set time-bound tasks that we can undertake and measure. This note could have been addressed to any other politician. It just happens that Ballia is in Uttar Pradesh and you are a young politician and we are heading towards national elections.
I hope you will take this note in the spirit it is intended.
Thank you and best wishes,
Chitra Subramaniam Duella
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