Conflict & Justice

Young Men in India Grapple with Culture of Violence Against Women

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Students at Kolkata's Jadavpur University (Photo: Ben Dalton/Flickr)

India's president said on Friday that it's time for the country to "reset its moral compass." He was speaking about the gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman on a bus in New Delhi last month.

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Five men are now on trial in a special fast track court in connection with the attack. A sixth is expected to be tried in juvenile court.

News of the attack ignited protests across the country, demanding justice and reforms. Most of the original protesters were students, like the victim herself.

The attack and the reaction to it have generated passionate discussions in India about the lack of safety for women, and what to do about it, but it's not just women doing the talking. Some male college students in New Delhi say they too are grappling with the issue.

Dhruv Sirohi, 19, an English Literature at Delhi's Ramjas College, says he and his friends have been having conversations about sexual violence. "Everyone's talking about it," says Sirohi. "Everyone has a view about it."

He says that's creating a new awareness among young men, not just about sexual violence, but also subtler forms of harassment.

"It could be just (text) messages," he says. "So people are aware of everything, even how you talk to a woman. So people are being more careful."

Another student, 18-year-old Rajat Philip of St. Stephen's College, says the past month has made him pick up on what women here face day in and day out.

"I grew up in a household with two brothers, so no sisters," says Philip. "So you're not exactly familiar with what all happens. It was new for me to hear about these things. You don't notice these things. It might be happening in front of your eyes, but you don't notice them." For example, he explains, the unwanted attention, the lewd remarks, the groping on the streets and on public transport.

Philip says he and his friends see what they didn't before.

"Now, if you're walking to the metro station here, there are sometimes rowdy groups of people, catcalling to women going past. So now we notice it. And if we have women friends, we're more concerned about them."

And yet, he says he also feels somewhat helpless.

"We can't do a thing about it, because that would mean getting into a fight about it. But I guess we notice it more," says Philip.

Kabir David, an 18-year-old student also from Ramjas College, says he's "overwhelmed" by the situation that women face going out in the city at night.

"I mean, I can't imagine not to walk out late," he explains, "I mean to be restricted so much in a democratic nation such as ours."

David says he has seen men pester women with unwanted attention, both on and off-campus. And he says he has been taken aback by some of the comments he has heard from other male students.

For example, one of his roommates, who are from Ludhiana, a small town in the state of Punjab, were visiting David's hometown, and called him to find out where the could buy a girl for the night.

"He said, 'Kabir, where will you get a girl?'" says David. "I said, 'I haven't done that.' (And) he said, 'there must be girls here. You should be knowing about this.'"

David says he thinks men like his roommate have trouble seeing women as other than objects, and it may also have to do with young men coming from deeply conservative areas where women have very low status.

"It's a very different mentality. You can't really come to a proper realization as to why they're like that, or (an) understanding," David says.

He says the only way to ensure better treatment for India's women is through education. He suggests boys and girls should socialize more freely in primary schools, and they should openly discuss gender issues in schools and colleges.

But when I ask if he has done much of that lately, he says he has felt hesitant to broach the issue beyond his own circle of friends.

"We don't talk to our own classmates whose background is different from ours," David says. "The conversation never goes to a level where I can ask them about girls and everything."

Changing that, David says, might be a good place to start.