Creating an environment against rape

IN Media Practice | 29/12/2012
There is an important role for media advocacy in building a powerful response to this national shame and walking that critical distance between data and decision as the nation's conscience keepers.
CHITRA SUBRAMANIAM presents a road map.

Imagine an in-your-face national symbol that reminds you of rape wherever you look.  Imagine a line in all Indian languages on a sticker that says “This is a rape-free environment.” Imagine every office, taxi, bus, train, aircraft, government and private office, cinema theatres, homes, schools, universities – every space – with that sticker. If we can say this is a smoke-free environment and paste pictures of gods and goddesses on our compound walls and office stair-cases to prevent people from spitting, surely the nation can rally around preventing rape.

Maybe that sticker can read “We are all Amanats and we are watching.”  I have used the name Amanat – one of the many names for the victim in the media – for the purpose of this piece.(She has just died.)  Politicians should pass the “Amanat test” when they contest elections. For a start, those facing charges of rape should be dropped. Here’s the list provided by the Association for Democratic Rights The effect of that single confidence building measure would be immense. Imagine every job application, every form you fill asking the simple question - do you know what the Amanat clause is. We are asked personal questions when we fill forms for credit cards and visas and they contribute to some data base somewhere. Building a base of evidence is a critical plank of media advocacy. Imagine a survey result which shows that 68% of employees in a company know what the Amanat clause is and will abide by it forever.  One rape every 22 minutes is what we are reporting. Like many, I suspect the numbers are bigger. This piece in India Today about the kind of people the former president Pratibha Patil pardoned should make India cry. The statement from Abhijit Mukherjee, President Pranab Mukherjee’s son, a member of parliament to boot, comparing women protestors to “dented and painted women” is cheap at best.  Imagine every Puja pandal in West Bengal and Chittaranjan Park (a Bengali enclave in New Delhi) adding Amanat to the chorus when they recite “ya devi sarvabhuteshu, shakti rupena samastithaha…” on Mahalaya amavasya that marks the start of the celebrations next October.

There is an Amanat somewhere in every house looking for protection from hooligans on the streets and family at home.  Imagine a huge national rape record clock at the Safdarjung hospital crossing in New Delhi where Amanat was being treated before she left for Singapore.  Imagine rape clocks in all major cities.  If we refuse to recognise the problem, how are we going to solve it? Remember that girl in Assam?

Over the past fortnight we have likened rapists to animals, called for chemical castration and public hangings. There is not a shred of evidence anywhere in the world to suggest that a death sentence will bring down crime including rape. Amanat was raped by human beings, not animals. Human beings are the only animals that kill, maim and torture for pleasure. Animals attack only when threatened.

This piece begins somewhere in the middle, between solutions and hysteria. The focus is on the important role of media advocacy in building a powerful response to this national shame and walking that critical distance between data and decision as the nation’s conscience keepers. Neither shrill nor sparing, media advocacy at its most powerful is an evidence-based construction of facts which are influenced and guided by professional standards understood by all.  Media advocacy is about getting all sections and professions in a society on the same page calling for action within a time frame that is democratically developed and accepted. Schools for example will not have the same approach as offices.  If some 630 million people, literate and illiterate, can participate in the world’s largest democratic exercise once every five years to send lawmakers to parliament, the same power can be harnessed by the media to protect those who hold up 50% of the sky. In India even that ratio is startling – for every 1000 boys, 60 girls are never born or go missing.

The commission that is looking into Amanat’s rape should not be named after a person, but after the crime that was committed. When a word enters the language, it powers thought processes. Mothers Against Drunk Driving makes more sense than a committee named after a retired Supreme Court judge. This kind of naming will add to the shaming and will be a second confidence building measure. It will serve as a constant reminder that we can never let our guard down. Another confidence building measure is to inform India about the terms of reference of the Amanat Committee.

Media advocacy is a mix of science and common sense that informs story-telling. What we have witnessed over the past fortnight is the onslaught of irresponsible story-telling which thrives on indifference, manufactured revolt, incompetence, lack of transparency and an inexplicable fear of the straight and simple. Amanat’s time is precious. In it there is no place for bickering between political parties, bureaucrats, lawyers and a section of the media that has taken upon itself the role of noise arbiter.

Examples of robust media advocacy in responsible and responsive democracies abound. The campaign for seat belts and tobacco control come to mind. Is the former due to rash driving and is the latter an individual frailty? Is it a public health issue or a criminal one? Is it about law or about society?  I have chosen to use examples from global tobacco control to make the simple point that what you don’t see does kill you.

“I am a doctor. I believe in science and evidence. Tobacco is a killer. Let me state it clearly.  It should not be advertised, glamourised, or subsidized,” said former Norwegian Prime Minister and past head of the World Health Organisation (WHO) Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland in 1999 as she launched an ambitious five-year exercise to negotiate the world’s first treaty devoted entirely to health - the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC).  In one stroke she had placed the world of fashion, glamour and cinema on alert and invited 174 countries to legislate against the public health consequences of tobacco consumption. A cigarette is the only freely available consumer product that kills one in two regular users every eight seconds and the tobacco industry needs 5000 new smokers everyday as a 1000 die and 4000 quit. Fresh fuel for this death machine is women and children.   

Imagine a one day televised session of the Indian parliament (minus those charged with rape) to discuss the Amanat case, the Khap Panchyats, the issue of Yellamma and little girls in Belgaum, the widows in Varanasi etc. Imagine the parliament passing a resolution requiring that all public transport in the country have at least one officer trained by the Amanat clause. If airlines can do it to protect terrorist attacks, why can’t busses and trains? Imagine television channels flashing pictures of lawmakers charged with rape during the parliamentary discussion.  If it can be done by news channels to remind us of journalists missing in action, what is the problem in flashing names of lawmakers facing rape charges?

Back to tobacco where we worked on what was to become a multi-faceted, multi-country negotiation where coalition-building with almost every sector of society was privileged.  As media lead for Dr. Brundtland’s campaign for the WHO job, I was assigned to plough the media and civil society around the issues the FCTC raised. We fanned out in search of the best and the latest in science, economics, public health law and successful media advocacy strategies that had led to policy change and regulation.  The initiative connected with the historic Minnesota case that defied the odds and declared war on the tobacco industry. That settlement was over $6billion  but more importantly the success of that court case provided access to over 35 million secret documents that detailed how the tobacco companies had deliberately questioned science, sold death and addiction and tricked their way into national and international public health solutions to deal with tobacco. More than 80 percent of tobacco users live in low and middle-income countries such as India and it is a risk factor of eight leading causes of death worldwide.

Imagine launching a national survey called “Amanat wants to know” that will document what women face, the real numbers of those raped or tortured  and the solutions they seek in their immediate surroundings. Imagine victims of rape and sexual abuse telling you that what you don’ see does hurt and kill?

The first challenge for TFI was to shift the tobacco debate from one being focused on individual frailties to one on malpractices by the tobacco industry. The second challenge was to come up with campaigns that were commonly understood in countries as diverse as those where tobacco litigation was in full swing and others where it meant a tattered poster in a village clinic.  The first opportunity was World No Tobacco Day (May 31st) and the campaign image was an ashtray with an orchid on it. This was not the time to be aggressive. This was the time to facilitate dialogue. Imagine declaring the day Amanat was raped in a moving bus as a day dedicated to her struggle? Imagine calling it the day “My voice is higher than my skirt” as the protestors’ placards affirm.   

In scientific journals, science frames the issue. In scholarly policy debates, facts and arguments frame the issue. But in media advocacy, facts and arguments are compressed into labels and symbols (Advocacy Institute, Washington, 1989). The tobacco initiative collaborated with the California Tobacco Control Campaign and picked their most recognizable tobacco advertising photograph – two cowboys riding into the sunset – with  “Bob, I have cancer” written across. Symbols speak louder than words. We all remember that one photograph that changed the course of history.

Our first media advocacy campaign that ran in 17 countries was called “Tobacco Kills – Don’t be Duped” (DBD) and addressed issues as diverse as marketing, advertising, agriculture, health and above all the deceit perpetuated by the tobacco industry  Learnings from DBD were rolled into a second campaign called “Channeling the Outrage” that was led by the civil society. The political timing was right and resonated in tangible change. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) went tobacco free as did FIFA the football federation. We teamed up with Jeffrey Wigand, a tobacco industry whistleblower whose struggle was the script of the film The Insider

Imagine a Bollywood script that details our Amanats?

The FCTC opened for signature on June 16, 2003. To date 168 countries have signed it but tobacco consumption has not dropped.  The treaty is a fine example of what political leadership and vision can achieve. It is also an example of how, when you lower your guard, the tobacco menace comes back destroying hard-earned public health gains. Laws are only as powerful as those that implement them.  We don’t need new laws and commissions to punish rapists in India. We need to ensure that existing laws work equally for all and if Amanat’s rapists are convicted, so will others who have power and political backing to escape.

Imagine documenting the stories of rape victims, their struggle with the justice system, the police, their family and friends and informing the national narrative? Imagine the power of their stories backed by evidence that was mocked at by the system they trusted?

If tobacco consumption is a disease communicated through aggressive marketing, rape is societal disease that is perpetuated by active indifference. The Amanat hearings are scheduled to begin next week. Lawyers are haggling over amendments to rape laws, lawmakers are unclear about the procedure and experts in television studios who can pronounce Connecticut but not Kudankulam are trying to snatch the national conversation which has long slipped from their irrelevant grasp.

Stop Imagining.

Media advocacy is not about outrage, charity or pity. Media advocacy for policy change and action seeks to provide people with skills and data to tell their stories in their own words. Unlike traditional approaches, it adopts a two way process where information is a determinant of change i.e. input and output influence each other. Media advocacy consults every sector before pronouncing itself with the clear understanding that its principle target is to unleash the power that people possess by providing the evidence. Angry parents, friends of victims, concerned citizens can all be excellent advocates, in some cases more effective than experts. Tactics follow. A call for all schools to compete to design a logo that will signify Amanat’s struggle is a powerful tool. It will add to keeping the national narrative alive.

What is the Amanat clause? India will write it together and the fourth estate will  facilitate the process. Media advocacy can enable, not provide solutions as a confidence building measure in institutions that are supposed to protect us.

Is it possible to televise the trial of the rapists?” It has never been done before but Amanat ki Adalat requires nothing less than a national public hearing. Radio is probably a better option. We will get to hear the rapists tell us how they raped Amanat and inflicted unimaginable pain on her and why they thought they they could get away with it.  The media can play the role of converting national shame to national justice and dignity. Every Indian male is not a rapist. What are we waiting for? Another…?

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