Trying to estimate how many thousands of words have already been written about the 23-year-old woman in India who died after a vicious gang rape would be a thankless task. There has been an outpouring. To watch as the world comes together to condemn rape, violence against women and the insidious misogyny of a nation is both heartbreaking (because of the circumstances) and heartening.
It’s a “maybe things can change” moment.
But there’s a lot about this moment that isn’t heartening.
As a young journalist fresh from my cadetship I was assigned to cover the Victorian County Court for The Age. It was a good round, working with some of the best journalists I know, and it really honed my shorthand skills. The other thing that happened was I started to see what most people don’t. Just how much of our justice system’s time is wrapped up in cases involving sexual assault and violence.
I covered a case where a man gouged out his partner’s eye. Another where a teacher took his student’s virginity in a car parked by the Fairfield boathouse. There was one where a masseuse put his hands in all the wrong places, and a number of doctors who did the same. There were men caught out soliciting 14-year-olds for sex on the internet, and one case involving a teen who kidnapped his girlfriend and made her believe they had both been abducted. He tried to convince her to have sex with him “for warmth” in the bush, while they wandered without food or water.
That was just the stuff that made it to print. Every morning I would get to the office and begin my day with a call around to the judge’s associates. The court list in front of me, I was looking for interesting circumstances or prominent citizens to report on for the day. A good third of the list was stuff I wouldn’t even call about, relatively petty crimes – not newsworthy. But another third or so would also be on the do-not-call list because the charge listed was incest. We didn’t generally cover these cases because they were not the sorts of things people wanted to read about (the Wheatie Spit, my editor called it, when people reading the paper spit out their breakfast in disgust). They were also difficult to report, because you wouldn’t be able to name anyone, or provide any identifying information about the case (including in some instances the name of the judge hearing it) because of strict laws around the reporting of sexual assault.
The other third, I’d pick up the phone and call for more information. So many times the conversation would be curtailed by a description of a sexual assault that was horrible but not reportable, for the reasons outlined above.
If I didn’t have a case to cover on a given day, I would often move from court to court, sitting in on cases to see if there was anything that sparked my interest. I often walked into cases involving the sexual abuse of women and children, none of it reportable, all of it awful.
For a sexual assault case to make the news it needed to be incredibly violent, or a matter of public safety, involve someone prominent, or have an intriguing hook to it – like the teen who kidnapped his girlfriend.
Here’s my problem – deciding that some sexual assaults are more interesting than others suggests some are more punishable than others. And that should not be the case.
What happened to the student in Delhi is awful, brutal, and wrong. It is a symptom of a society that does not value women as equals with autonomy, but sees them instead as objects and commodities. But it is not unique to India. It is an extreme example of attitudes that exist around the globe. You cannot say “well, last year the UN ranked India the worst place in the world to be born a girl, so this is the sort of thing that could happen there”.
It could happen anywhere. Rape and murder do happen anywhere. Rape is used as a weapon in conflicts, in relationships, in communities. And women the world over live constantly with the fear that one day it might happen to them. Not just women in India, or women in warzones, or poverty, or violent relationships. Women of every station, ethnicity, nationality and age.
I don’t want to lessen the impact of this terrible crime. I want people who think about the Delhi rape and murder to consider that it is not removed from them. That it is not the product of a society so very far removed from their own.
No society is exempt from this problem.
So push for the betterment of women in India. Maintain the rage, speak out for women’s rights.
But know this. For every rape you hear about, there will be many many more you don’t. And inevitably the circus will move on, and the Delhi student’s case will become a memory of an unpleasant moment when a society was forced to talk about a long-standing problem.
What we all choose to do next – that’s the real test.