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India gang rape: How to reduce violence against women

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In our study in Bangalore, 2 in 5 young women who reported experiencing violence had contemplated or attempted suicide. Moreover, the adverse impacts extend across generations. Infants born to mothers who experience violence are more likely to be born pre-term, have low birth weight, and to die within the first 28 days of life. Witnessing family violence in childhood increases the likelihood that a girl will experience violence as an adult and that a boy will grow up to perpetrate violence against his intimate partner – perpetuating the cycle of violence and ill health.

Yet women are not silent victims. Although a large number of women do accept violence as part of their lot in life or put up with it for the sake of their children or because they perceive no alternative, many seek support. All too often, they are rebuffed and silenced by the government, communities, and even their families – as India and the world have seen repeatedly in recent days.

Violence against girls and women is a fundamental violation of human rights. It is imperative that the Indian government, communities, and families respond. As noted extensively in the media, awareness and implementation of existing laws to protect girls’ and women’s rights (and there are several in India) must be ensured. Critical services – law enforcement, health, and allied supports – need to be readily accessible to women.

The public health sector has a key role to play. Primary health-care providers are uniquely positioned to raise community awareness about women’s rights and to offer abused women access to critical health and social support services. I am working with the municipal government of Bangalore to build a public primary health-care system response to violence against women.

Efforts to directly address women’s and men’s attitudes – through outreach to homes, schools, communities, and workplaces – are also needed. For centuries, Indian religious texts, social norms, and customs have perpetuated unequal relationships between men and women. These attitudes are changing – as illustrated by the surge of discontent and anger in response to violence against women across the country – but change is not happening widely enough.

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