While the Indian Government Shies From the Topic, Indian Fashion Week Highlights Sexual Violence

Photo Courtesy WEVolve’s Facebook page.

For the past 15 years, Lakme Fashion Week in Mumbai, India has been providing an opportunity for emerging designers to showcase their work and celebrate the country’s vibrant culture. International celebrities, models and buyers come together for the biannual fashion event that features around 80 designers.

But this season, just weeks after India’s government banned a documentary that featured a gang rape that happened in the country in 2012, the organizers of LFW decided to highlight the issue the government attempted to stifle. Lakme, the number one cosmetics and beauty service in India, partnered with WEvolve, a global campaign and program aimed at empowering young men and women to challenge norms that lead to gender violence.

Domestic and sexual violence has been an ongoing issue in areas of Southeast Asia. The National Family Health Survey reported in 2006 that 40 percent of women in India have experienced domestic violence, but according to a piece by the Inter Press Service, experts believe that the number is closer to 84 percent.

“Gender violence is much too common around the world with over one in three women in the world experiencing violence. In South Asia, gender violence is widespread and persists in many forms including physical and sexual abuse,” says Joe Qian for WeEvolve via email. “South Asia suffers from widespread gender violence that can take on forms such as acid attacks, dowry-related murders, honor killings, trafficking and enslavement.”

A study by the International Research Center for Women found that in Delhi alone, nine out of 10 women had experienced some form of sexual violence in public spaces.  The number of violent crimes against women rose from to 309,546 reported attacks in 2013, with 33,707 rape cases and 225 including acid from 2010 to 2012.

The efforts by Lakme and WEvolve present the issue of violence against women in an untraditional way that brings together both influential groups and young people, who they feel are integral to changing the future.

“Gender-based violence, for far too long, has been a conversation relegated to the background. Using pop culture outlets like Bollywood, commercials, and even fashion shows will help bring these conversations into the foreground, where they need to be if we have any hopes of tackling the violence that too many women and girls head on,” says Dr. Ravi Verma, Regional Director of the International Center for Research on Women’s Asia regional office via email.

On the opening night of LFW designer Manish Malhotra and American actress Rosario Dawson unveiled the longest runway in Indian fashion history, which was decorated in blue to signify the color for domestic violence prevention. Models went down the runway in Malhorta’s intricate designs, while also holding signs that said words like “gender,” “equality,” “respect,” “society” and “empower.”

“It is a pleasure to be involved in the launch of this WEvolve global campaign that addresses gender violence.  Fashion has a comprehensive and universal appeal and can thus be a powerful instrument to raise awareness and promote action. I congratulate and thank WEvolve and Lakmé Fashion Week for giving me this opportunity to contribute to this great cause,” said Malhotra in a press release.

“Events like the Blue Runway help create awareness by bringing together influential people who often serve as role models for young people,” says Quan. “This can help reshape the narrative on the acceptability of violence and advocating for changes in attitudes. This is just the beginning as we bring in more advocates to strengthen and amplify this critical message. We plan on having another Blue Runway event at Fashion Week in Lagos in the fall.”

The social norms for women in Southeast Asia, where serious inequality exist and traditional customs like dowry are still in place, have lead to violent attacks against women. The recent documentary called India’s Daughter by Meryl Streep, reveals the story of the 2012 murder of Mukesh Singh, a medical student who was gang raped on a bus and killed for being out late at night with a man that was not her husband. The documentary was banned in India.

Fortunately, the devastating murder of Singh was able to cause international outrage and eventually forced the government to implement change. Acid attacks became a criminal offense with at least a ten-year sentence and just last week the Indian government approved a rule that requires one-third of the police force in Delhi to be women, to make the force more gender sensitive.

“Conversations about violence against women can’t just be happening in the conference rooms of NGOs, but have to be reaching the broad public in a way that’s accessible. Fashion shows are just one important tool in which we can deliver that message,” says Verma.

“But first and foremost, the public and government officials need to understand the extent to which women experience violence.  Knowing the extent of the problem helps us figure out how to develop ways to tackle it and helps us get the resources necessary to address the problem.”

With the increase in violence against women at a high, government officials will have to reform the corrupt criminal justice system that fails to help victims. Just last year, a lawmaker in India came under fire for describing rape as something that is “sometimes it’s right, sometimes it’s wrong.”

“In India, rape is as much a social problem as it’s criminal. It’s a subject still shrouded in shame and stigma in a country governed by traditional patriarchy — which means women who have suffered sexual assault still hesitate to report it to the police for fear of backlash and social ostracism,” says Rituparna Chatterjee, the deputy editor of HuffPost India in an interview with The Huffington Post.

“Violence against women historically, has not been treated as a major crime in many areas of the world and those who abuse their partners often do not face consequences from their communities and law enforcement, “ says Quan.

“Abusers tend to view their partners as property or objects rather than people, often have low self-esteem and feel powerless and inadequate, sometimes blaming outside circumstances on their partners. This has many negative effects on individuals, families, society, and the economy.”

According to Chatterjee, access to the internet and the influx of 24/7 media have increased sources for millions of women to get crucial information on personal safety, helplines and awareness campaigns.

“The social platforms have played a huge role in highlighting these stories and forcing authorities (many top police officials and outposts have active Twitter handles, as have government departments) to act by building pressure,” says Chatterjee to the Huffington Post.

Last year, India’s President Pranab Mukherjee pledged that there would be “zero tolerance” for violence against women. This message came after the rape and lynching of two teenaged cousins. Organizations like WEvolve and the International Research Center for Women are focusing on educating children to shape a different future.

“Programs that are currently taking place in schools around India, are helping to shift gender norms and are teaching students that from a young age, discrimination and violence are unacceptable,” says Verma. “These programs are successful in shifting children’s attitudes, an important component because we know that attitudes learned early on will be carried through later in life.”

WEvolve has also feels it is important to invest in efforts towards educating and empowering boys and men to stop violence against women.

“Women continue to face disadvantages in almost all spheres. But if we want a gender equitable society, empowering women is not enough,” says Quan. “We must also empower men. Of course, not in the conventional sense by giving men more power over women. Rather, by empowering men to challenge prevailing norms and change their behaviors. This is logical even though it has not been the prevailing approach. Gender is a “system” and both women and men are integral parts of this system.”

While gender violence is a serious issue in Southeast Asia, organizations like WEvolve are working towards eradicating the problem worldwide. According to The World Health Organization, it is estimated that 35 percent of women around the world, or more than one billion women, have or will experience either intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.

“Until societies not just in India but all around the world, recognize the systematic discrimination against girls and women, which is so often manifested in violent ways, our efforts to end gender violence will be continuously hampered,” says Verma.