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Outrage over India gang rape shows the power of human dignity

The gang rape and death of a young woman in India has ignited outrage at sexual violence against women and girls in India and at corrupt police. Reactions to dehumanization and humiliation can spur movements for political and social change, as seen in Egypt and Tunisia.

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In Tunisia and Egypt, the persistence of police brutality and harassment raises the question of the extent to which the Arab Spring’s political change has led to social change.

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Active recognition of others’ inherent value as fellow human beings – the opposite of dehumanization – underlies some of the most heroic responses to war (for example, Paul Rusesabagina’s saving Rwandans from genocide depicted in the film “Hotel Rwanda”) and some of the most powerful efforts to mitigate poverty’s impacts (for example, Mother Theresa’s treatment of the destitute and dying with dignity).

Conversely, failure to recognize and value other individuals as fellow human beings underlies many of our cruelest behaviors, from sexual violence to human trafficking to prisoner abuse and torture to genocide. Systemic devaluing of individuals contributes to entrenched problems such as inhumane labor conditions and demeaning treatment of patients at health facilities.

When dehumanization reaches a tipping point or when particularly reprehensible cases become visible to the public, movements can emerge like those that swept through the Middle East or like the one we are witnessing in India. It is as though collective repulsion provokes and empowers people to stand up and demand change from authorities, to demand that as a society we evolve beyond such behaviors.

In India the government has committed to a number of steps – including the requisite establishment of commissions – to prevent sexual violence and more rapidly mete out justice to rapists. Many protesters are demanding further action, and significant reductions in rape will clearly require sustained effort on multiple fronts. Nevertheless, the movement born in New Delhi and the policy actions it has elicited demonstrate how citizen responses to cruel and dehumanizing acts can mobilize social change.

Dr. Tony Castleman is an associate research professor of international affairs and associate director of the Institute for International Economic Policy at George Washington University. He was previously director of a non-profit organization in Lucknow, India, working on health, education, and women’s empowerment.


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