During a trip to Pondicherry in October, I walked past some graffiti that made me do a double take. It featured a woman carrying several pots with the words “respect women” and “women is life” scrawled next to it. Bad grammar aside, the image was powerful.
India is the subject of negative worldwide media attention for its rising rates of sexual assault, rape and violence against women. During the fall semester, my study abroad program in Hyderabad has less than half its normal number of students. I imagine some potential participants were deterred by a few highly-publicized horror stories some young, Western women have of their time in India. For every case involving foreign women, there are hundreds more including Indian women that will go unreported.
But I often found myself asking — is it really that much better in the United States? Americans have a tendency to point fingers at the shortcomings of other nations, especially with human rights issues, rather than face issues at home. Let’s not forget one in five American women will be victims of sexual assault during their lifetimes.
Unlike most people in the United States, I felt that the Indian citizens I talked to were much more aware of the problems women face. The government is taking steps to accommodate women, too. Pondicherry has an All Women Police Station with officers trained specifically for investigating domestic disputes, dowry-related cases and other crimes against women.
It could be argued that this type of specialized station is only necessary because of the shortcomings of regular police stations, specifically with the harassment women face when filing first information reports about incidents of sexual violence. Nonetheless, its existence shows awareness about problems with the system and is an attempt to address them.
Comparing the amount of women in government in the United States and other countries is an interesting exercise. American politics can boast no female figure as powerful or influential as former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. There has never been an American female president or vice president. Even Muslim nations such as Iran, which many American politicians deem oppressive to women, has a female vice president.
The graffiti in Pondicherry wasn’t an isolated incident. Throughout my travels, I noticed graffiti bearing messages to improve the way women are viewed and treated. Although they are technically small acts of vandalism, it’s refreshing to see people advocating for women in a creative way. When people in America speak out about women’s rights, they are often denounced. There is still the stereotype of feminists as men-hating, bra-burning, angry women. Things are definitely changing, but it takes time.
Ultimately, there is no use in comparing which nation has more progress to make in order to improve the safety and livelihoods of girls and women. Both countries have a specific set of issues to tackle that are deeply ingrained in their respective cultures. For now, the best we can do is educate ourselves and work to educate others to help empower girls. A little bit of art never hurts, either.
VOICE Intern, Fall 2013