The man who drove the rickshaw that took Vivian Lord through the streets of India’s state of Tamil Nadu last spring gave her hope about the country’s future, simply because he treated his son and his daughter equally.
Baba sacrificed and scraped by in a city far from his village so that he could afford to send both of his children to private school for the same quality education.
“For every family that perhaps doesn’t understand the importance of their women, his daughter is every bit equal to his son in his eyes,” said Lord, a professor at UNC Charlotte in criminal justice and criminology. “To me that symbolizes where India is going.”
In a country where males have long been looked upon as the more favorable gender, Lord believes the rickshaw driver represents the slight stirring of an emerging shift among villagers in treatment of and attitude toward India’s women.
Indian women, even in modern times, have struggled for their safety, their rights and, often, for their very lives.
The importance of sons as financial security for their parents has led to a lopsided gender ratio in the country, where female infanticide, although illegal, is known to occur as authorities turn a blind eye, much as with other crimes against women.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau, a rape occurs every 28 minutes in India, and many more go unreported for fear of being met with indifference or worse.
Lord spent last spring in India on a Fulbright-Nehru Fellowship to research the country’s criminal justice system, particularly its handling of crimes against women.
In September, the United Nations published the results of the largest international study on rape ever conducted. Although the information, gathered from the responses of a survey of 10,000 men in Asia, didn’t include India, it spoke volumes about Asia’s attitude toward sexual violence.
An overwhelming majority of the men surveyed who had committed rape said they did so because they felt they were entitled as males.
“There’s a whole lot more in India that’s going to work against you in reporting a rape,” said Lord, citing a newspaper story about a police officer who raped a woman who had gone to the police station to report a rape.
Attempts have been made to remedy the problem of violence against women in India. In 1992, all-female police stations were established so victims would feel safer reporting such crimes as domestic abuse, dowry harassment and rape.
In the past two decades, 524 such stations have been put in place throughout India. But even then, grossly understaffed, they’re not always effective at encouraging victims to speak up.
Since the Delhi gang rape last December – when a 23-year-old student was attacked, left for dead by four men, and later died of her injuries – public outrage has forced the government to tighten its laws on rape and hold criminals accountable.
The four men accused of the attack last December was sentenced to death, an unusual outcome.
But beyond the new laws and all-female police stations, Lord, like many others, believes the attitude of men toward women will need to change before anything else can.
“We’ve got to start teaching in the home better how our boys should behave,” said Lord.
In some respects, she sees the signs of positive change. At the University of Madras, where she taught a course while in India, she watched male students interact with female students respectfully, treating them like peers.
But the female students, many of whom came to the university by bus, spoke with her about the frequency of what’s known as “Eve-teasing.”
“It’s what we would call all-out fondling and harassment on the buses,” said Lord. “They said you can’t get away from it.”
It’s people like Baba, the rickshaw driver, who will slowly turn the county’s attitude about women around, said Lord.
“Baba and his family are the real people of India,” she said. “He lives to get those kids educated. He’s going to get both of those kids in college. It’s those sorts of stories that give me real faith in India.”