This October marks the one year anniversary of the start of the #MeToo movement, launched when scores of actresses, models, producers, and women in the entertainment industry accused Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment, abuse, and rape.
Now, a year after its dawn in America, the #MeToo movement is finally taking root in India, where women are breaking their silence and shaking the power structures of the world’s largest democracy.
The dam broke when Tanushree Dutta, a former Miss India and Bollywood star who now lives in America, unearthed her case against veteran Indian actor Nana Patekar whom she accused of sexually assaulting her while filming on set ten years ago. Dutta’s disclosure encouraged more women to tell their stories and soon, media executives, newspaper editors, actors, and filmmakers were exposed, suspended from their jobs, and subjected to criminal and internal investigations.
In the most prominent case, journalist Priya Ramani accused deputy minister of external affairs M. J. Akbar of harassing and groping her while he was a newspaper editor. In the next few days, at least 15 more women emerged with similar stories. Akbar resigned Oct. 17, a week and a half after the allegations first emerged and after facing mounting pressure from women and politicians demanding an investigation.
It seems India is now ready to confront its pernicious culture of sexual abuse — a culture reinforced by Bollywood’s portrayal of women as sexual objects and whose primary victims tend to be the poor and marginalized. Yet as more women find their voices, India will have to overcome the temptation to politicize sexual abuse.
If the recent case of Brett Kavanaugh’s contentious confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court taught us anything, it is that the greatest threat to the #MeToo movement is not false accusations, media sensationalism, or even the so-called patriarchy – it is politics. Politicians will go to extremes to weaponize the trauma of sexual abuse survivors for partisan ends. And in the age of the online mob rule, where the court of public opinion trumps the court of law, unproven allegations turn overnight into guilty verdicts. In the process, reputations are damaged beyond repair and the #MeToo cause is undermined.
Even more harmful, politics distract us from fixing the underlying issues that perpetuate sexual abuse. In India, where on average 106 rapes are reported daily, demographic imbalance, a mismanaged court system, cultural prejudices, and poverty all play a role in creating an environment conducive to sexual violence.
Take India’s court system, which is notorious for its absurd backlog of unheard cases — more than 27 million according to current judicial data. Trials take a minimum of six years to resolve, that is if they are not pushed all the way to the High Court. And though the highly publicized 2012 gang rape and murder of a university student in Delhi led to establishing fast-track courts and harsher punishments on perpetrators, justice is still slow to come and often unattainable for many impoverished women.
In some cases, the delay in justice even emboldens the accused to retaliate, as it happened a couple years ago with a Dalit woman who was gang-raped twice by the same men in incidents three years apart. Dalits, sometimes called “untouchables,” are often treated as second class citizens because of their birth. Dalit women, who on average die 14.6 years younger than women from higher castes, are particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation and violence.
In addition, India is one of a few countries with national criminal defamation laws. The laws were enacted to protect citizens from libel and, in criminal cases, the burden of proof rests on the prosecution. Yet the laws can be easily manipulated by the rich and powerful to silence accusers and drag them through the courts. For example, the disgraced deputy minister M. J. Akbar filed a defamation case against Ramani and, as a show of force, listed 97 lawyers as part of his legal squad. Sex crimes already are difficult to prove, especially when the incident happened years or decades ago, and if the prosecution can prove accusations amount to defamation within the legal parameters, women like Ramani could face up to two years in jail and a fine.
Another factor exacerbating sexual violence in India is the country’s lopsided gender imbalance. India has 37 million more men than women. Some states, such as Haryana in the north, have as low as 914 girls for every 1,000 boys. This imbalance is due largely to the selective abortion of girls because of a cultural preference for male children. There is reason to believe a correlation exists between sex ratio and the recurrence of sexual violence. Other indicators, such as educational attainment, income potential, and conviction rates suggest better educated and financially secure women might be more likely to report sex crimes, especially in states with high conviction rates.
When put in perspective, it becomes evident that an angry, online mob stoked by politicians will not fix India’s problem with sexual violence. Even if powerful men like Akbar are exposed and brought down, the insidious causes behind the harassment, abuse, and rape women face daily will remain unchanged.
If the #MeToo movement is to be effective in India, it must rise above partisan politics and focus on addressing the social, economic, and legal factors mentioned above. But chief among these goals should be championing and improving the rule of law. A reliable, fair, and effective due process is the best way to protect women, hold perpetrators accountable and settle unsubstantiated accusations.
The #MeToo movement has been a long time coming and, though India has taken significant strides to address sexual violence, there is still much work left to be done. Most of the stories we are reading come from the film, news, and entertainment industries or from urban areas. There are countless millions of women from India’s remote villages and hamlets whose stories we will probably never hear. If the #MeToo movement is to make a difference for them, it will be by ensuring the rule of law works for them, too.
Most Rev. Joseph D’Souza is an internationally renowned human and civil rights activist. He is the founder of Dignity Freedom Network, an organization that advocates for and delivers humanitarian aid to the marginalized and outcasts of South Asia. He is archbishop of the Anglican Good Shepherd Church of India and serves as the president of the All India Christian Council.