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May 24, 2013

They do mind the gap

Oxfam India

If you walked into a small auditorium at a New Delhi university recently, here’s what you would have seen — several young people sat quietly in a circle. They were listening to another young woman speak. She talked about painful realities that countless Indian women have to endure, but rarely confront. She spoke about growing up as a girl. She spoke about how she was repeatedly told — sometimes literally and sometimes subliminally — that she was inferior to her brothers. She spoke about the pure fear she felt when she walked alone at night. And she spoke about how India must make a profound change in the way it treats its women if it ever wants to reach its destiny.

After she’d finished, the floodgates opened. All the women in the room suddenly found their voice. Stories about discrimination in life started to flow. Conversations like this are part of a seismic shift in Indian society. Young people are no longer passive bystanders in public debates about gender. They are raising their voice at a political establishment that has refused to take them seriously. Sometimes their frustration blossoms into outright anger, particularly when confronted with horrendous outrage. After the Delhi gang rape, young people took the streets in great numbers to first protest against the pernicious attitudes towards women.

But it would be a mistake to believe that these protests are solely about individual outrages. There’s an equally powerful unease about the broader inequalities that every girl and woman must stare down. There are statistics, which are stark. The terribly low numbers of women in the police force are an example, as is the Parliament. There remains a yawning education gap between girls and boys.

Do we really believe that the contempt shown towards women in eve teasing, or in the depressing stories about workplace discrimination, don’t spring from the same dank well of misogyny that propels rape? India’s youth is convinced that in the end it is attitudes that must change, not just laws.

The NGO I’m involved in — Oxfam India — has set up two free CLOSETHEGAP phone lines and is encouraging as many people as possible to call them. Thousands of calls have already come in from all over the country. The stories are as varied as India itself. Callers have asked why women are still so pitifully under-represented in the top echelons of our society. They’ve complained about the way women are treated in the home by their extended families. They’ve demanded greater public safety for women. And they’ve asked why so many women are not permitted to get an education or a job, even when opportunities exist.

This campaign is a small part of a silent revolution gripping more and more young people in New Delhi and across India. They realise that India’s treatment of women is a tragedy of immense proportions that must be met with outrage, not silence.

And they know that it’s only by raising their voice that the gap can be closed.

By Rahul Bose

Rahul Bose is an actor, activist and global ambassador for Oxfam International.

Courtesy: The Hindustan Times

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