Responding to #VAW. Once more and again

On a good day; it is hard to find much that’s wrong with Twitter. The bonhomie, the banter, the cerebral and the goofy, all meld together as epitome of all that is wonderful with it. But, the communal nature of the place ensures a downside too. And that, is the sadness which queues up in Timelines with a regularity that’s almost predictable based on who or what you follow. Sorrows happening elsewhere find their way into our lives here, as news feed of obits and, brutalities scroll past disbelieving eyes in varying shades of vile and venal. They come to inform, to instigate grief and outrage and from there, hopefully, to initiate change. That they come with expectations of response is obvious. What the nature of the response should be, is less certain.

Obits have the acronym that sounds more like a barking order than honest grief. Even if, its rampant use seems more like misuse; at least, it is harmless and well intentioned. On the other hand, our insta-response to the more common stories of murder and mayhem, combines rage, abuse, argument and misinformation, is designed to be little more than a vent and must therefore give us some pause. Yet, against every common sense, we rise easy to provocation. Rise in collective reaction as giant waves of outrage that we direct against systems and mind-sets; but, that instead, somehow manage to crash on our own borders as shipwrecked fury. In a rare case, this outpouring leaves behind a ripple of online activism that vows to hold the flame. More commonly, it’s over almost as soon as it started. And we are alone again with the familiar hollow feeling; a nag of: something done but nothing achieved. A feeling of having clanged doors that turned out to be windows and that, still, didn’t open.

Despite these misgivings, I’ve been on Twitter long enough to know that its outrage is rarely ignored. The swell from here spills over onto the MSM and from there to the powers that be. That ought to feel like a good thing. Yet, it reeks of short-term gain with no definitive long term outcome. More unhappily, that short-term gain is usually nothing more than mere tokenism but it seems to satisfy and the storm of our rage is allowed to dissipate.

Violence against women (#VAW) is one such example. It is episodic, complexly intertwined with many other social determinants, and is often happening elsewhere and to someone else. Every now and then, a particularly unspeakable horror is inflicted on another hapless sister, our carefully constructed assurances crumble once more and again, we rise in a clamor of outrage. The same cycle repeats and it goes like this: We convince ourselves the sound of our sinking sorrow is actually the cadence of our rising voices. The noise hits tipping point, some token response is crumbled our way (the standard for rape now seems to be – fast-track courts), we pipe down, carry the grief around awhile, and limp back to the routines of our lives. Most of us have neither the time nor the energy to be single-minded about staying on course with something that is periodic and happening elsewhere. That last about it ‘happening elsewhere’ is often used as accusatory judgment. In reality, no ‘elsewhere’ is that far that we don’t feel the desecration each time as if it was our own. The next time too (and there will be a shameful next time) we will return to re-enact the stages of our public grief. Excoriate ourselves for not doing enough. Set ourselves up to be judged by cynical eyes that view our reactions as, flavor-of-the-moment activism. Every woman knows in her bones the falseness of that charge. But, Twitter after all is the giant sinkhole that sublimates our closet dilettante.

WSJ Graphics         A Rape Map Of India: Pic Source

This time, it was Badaun. We are still going through the stages as I write. Nothing new; nothing different. Even the standard diversionary shift is down pat. In this case, it is an argument over photographs – should they have been posted online. Meanwhile, the children are dead. Tokenism is out in full force and our grief seems to be waning.

It’s embarrassing. And distressing. That a matter of such importance is colored by so much drama and so little gravitas. What difference are we really making? What difference has been wrought? What are we hoping to spur with photographs? What are we doing here that is changing anything on the ground.

The Delhi protests against the Dec ‘12 rape of a student (called by many monikers, none of which I like; but, uncertain of what the law says on the subject of naming her, I’ll toe the line and call her Nirbhaya too) were indeed a defining moment. Out of that came: the Verma commission report, a 1000 Crore fund in Nirbhaya’s name, the Vishaka guidelines for workplace harassment (originally espoused in 1997) passed into Law and six dedicated fast track courts that were set up for Delhi alone.

Unsurprisingly, all of them have problems. The 1000 Crore fund proved to be one in name -barely a Rupee has been allocated; the Verma Commission’s suggested changes to the Vishaka guidelines have not been incorporated and the jury is still out on the benefits of fast track courts. Most of the Verma Commission’s recommendations, though considered thorough and comprehensive, are yet to be implemented. The only heartening news is that the number of reported and registered complaints of harassment and rape have gone up. But, here too, the convictions continue to be few and far between.

In light of this, of what use is outrage? The scrolling stream of erupting emotion seems to have little, if any, teeth to mobilize actionable change on the ground. In despair, this time, I tried tagging the Prime Minister – an exercise in foolishness for someone with my modest profile and as expected, it yielded nothing.

Our response to rape and #VAW might yield a better result if it is channeled at a specific target and is incisive and persistent in its attack. The problem of rape has thrown up two such targets. One: Police reform. A factor that has time and again been cited as a potential game changer for gender abuse. And, two: Inadequate sanitation. Badaun has once again brought to the fore the horrific chance-consequence of a lack of sanitation. What for us is a matter-of-fact guarantee as to not even merit a second’s thought; for these children, is a matter of life and death. The simple ordinariness of a humble toilet should become something that girls and women get used to having in the relative safety of their homes, schools and communities.

As with most other things; for outrage to be effective it must be directed at a precise target. The word ‘Rape’ doesn’t fit the bill anymore. ‘Police reform’ and ‘toilets for girls’ do and are actionable targets. Activism directed at them will be a harbinger of a more lasting change.


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