In the biggest speech of the year, and his first major address, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi chose to speak at length about the scourge of rape and violence against women, breaking a long silence on the matter and raising the issue to major prominence.
Modi swept to office in June after the largest election in history, which saw his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) win big over the long-ruling Indian National Congress. Modi’s electoral victory came just days before a horrific gang rape in the Uttar Pradesh saw two young girls murdered and left hanging from a mango tree for their village to find. The violent incident was just the latest in a string that have earned international headlines and placed a spotlight on the fact that in India “every 60 minutes two women are raped” as a 2012 United Nations-linked report found.
Though large-scale protests were mobilized — and local officials often commented to disastrous effect — the newly installed government had remained mostly silent on the matter of rape culture throughout the country. Modi changed that with his speech on Friday, India’s independence day, given without script or notes.
In speaking out, Modi challenged citizens and government alike to change the way that rape is thought about. “Today as we hear about the incidents of rapes, our head hangs in shame,” he said in his wide-ranging address. “I want to ask parents when your daughter turns 10 or 12 years old, you ask, ‘Where are you going? When will you return?’ Do the parents dare to ask their sons, ‘Where are you going? Why are you going? Who are your friends?’ After all, the rapist is also someone’s son. If only parents decide to put as many restrictions on their sons as they do on their own daughters.”
Though only time will tell whether the Modi government acts on the rhetoric seen in his speech, Tanvi Mandan, head of the Brookings Institution’s India Project told ThinkProgress in an email, the fact that they are even being talked about in this way is significant. “This is the first time that a prime minister has spoken about violence against women in this fashion, especially using such a prominent platform – the closest American equivalent of the Indian PM’s independence day speech would be the president’s State of the Union speech,” she wrote.
“Moreover, Mr. Modi spoke of an aspect of this that Indian civil society has helped highlight publicly over the last couple of years – that this is not just a legal issue, but a societal one; not just about having the right laws in place, but also about changing culture,” Madan continued.
Part of the shift in culture that Modi hopes to achieve is doing away with the practice of outdoor defecation and increasing the number of toilets available in girl’s schools. “There should be separate toilets for girls. Next year when we stand here, every school should have toilets for girls and boys,” Modi challenged the government and corporations alike. The two girls killed in Uttar Pradesh were raped as they relieved themselves in a nearby field, a common occurrence in India and among the most prevalent periods when women around the world are sexually assaulted. According to a BBC report, “a senior police official in Bihar said some 400 women would have ‘escaped’ rape last year if they had toilets in their homes.”
Modi also used his speech to speak out against the practice of Indian family’s selectively aborting females in the woman or abandoning female babies once they’re born. Earlier this week, the Indian government announced that the sex ration among children 0-6 — standing at 927 girl children per 1,000 boys — is the lowest it’s been since India’s independence in 1947.
“Have we seen our sex ratio? Who is creating this imbalance?” Modi asked. “Not God. I appeal to the doctors not to kill the girl child in the mother’s womb. I request the parents not to kill daughters because they want a son. Don’t kill daughters in the womb, it is a blot on 21st century India. I have seen families where one daughter serves parents more than five sons.”
“The overall emphasis in the speech was less about what government can and will do and more about how Indian citizens needed to take responsibility and do their bit as well,” Madan noted to ThinkProgress. Similarly, the prime minister’s speaking out against female infanticide and foeticide, as well as the lack of toilets in girl’s schools was followed by a call to action not just for politicians, but also corporations and citizens.”
Not everyone was pleased with Modi’s speech, however. Members of the Indian National Congress were less than impressed with the scope Modi offered overall in his speech. “Given that it was the first address of the new Prime Minister one would have expected certain vision to be articulated by him on the trajectory of the next five years,” party spokesperson and former minister Manish Tewari said. “But it is unfortunate that PM got bogged down in pedestrian issues without being able to rise to the occasion.”