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India gang rape: How to reduce violence against women

The recent death of a woman who was gang-raped in New Delhi has called the world’s attention to an all-too-common occurrence. But efforts in Bangalore, India show change is possible. India's government and others must invest in research and programs that promote gender equality.

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The public health sector has a key role to play. Primary health-care providers are uniquely positioned to raise community awareness about women’s rights and to offer abused women access to critical health and social support services. I am working with the municipal government of Bangalore to build a public primary health-care system response to violence against women.

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Efforts to directly address women’s and men’s attitudes – through outreach to homes, schools, communities, and workplaces – are also needed. For centuries, Indian religious texts, social norms, and customs have perpetuated unequal relationships between men and women. These attitudes are changing – as illustrated by the surge of discontent and anger in response to violence against women across the country – but change is not happening widely enough.

In Bangalore, we are mobilizing older women in the family – mothers-in-law – to stand up against family violence. The nongovernmental organization, Bangalore Medical Services Trust, has launched a workplace gender equity promotion program that uses a participatory approach. They engage employees in designing and implementing a workplace campaign to promote gender-equitable attitudes and raise awareness regarding legal and social support services for abused women through print, popular folk art, and personal histories. Individuals in need are actively linked to support agencies.

This effort has led to dramatic shifts in male and female garment workers’ attitudes: At the outset of the program, 70 percent of women and men said that there were times when a woman deserves to be beaten, but by the end of the first year of implementation, the proportion condoning violence had declined to less than 20 percent.

Violence against women is not inevitable. As demonstrated by these emerging programs in Bangalore, systematic and sustained efforts can lead to positive social change in the relatively short term. The Indian government needs to invest in developing strategies to promote gender-equitable attitudes and safe spaces for girls and women. The government should also invest in generating evidence on what works, with whom it works, and how, so that investments can have maximum impact.

It is encouraging that in August, President Obama issued an executive order stating his administration’s commitment to prevent and respond to violence against women and girls worldwide. The tragic death of a young woman in India should serve as a catalyst for furthering US efforts to support program development for women and ongoing research about this epidemic of violence in India and elsewhere in the world. Now is the time for action.

Suneeta Krishnan is a social epidemiologist with RTI International and also an adjunct professor of epidemiology at the St. John’s Research Institute, Bangalore.

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