13 schoolgirls in a village in Northern India have refused food for six days straight, in protest against the daily harassment they face while trying to go to school.
Hailing from the Rewari district, the girls must travel to school in a neighbouring village because there is currently no higher secondary school in their own village. En route, they are subject to daily harassment, known as “eve-teasing,” from men making unwanted physical advances and lewd comments. Aged between 16-18 years old, the students have taken this radical step to take matters into their own hands and urge the authorities to protect them.
Sheetal, one of the students taking part in the hunger strike, told BBC Hindi:
"Almost every day, we face eve teasing. Should we stop studying? Should we stop dreaming? Are only rich people and their children allowed to dream? The government should protect us or open a higher-secondary school in our village.”
The police have promised to improve security for the students, and the government has indicated it will upgrade existing schools in their village to higher secondary level. Still, the students refuse to end the strike until they see concrete orders.
Some parents have backed the protest. Rohtash Kumar, the father of one of the student protesters, said: “Such promises have not been fulfilled in the past. We want to be sure that our struggle doesn't go waste because of a false promise.”
The BBC reports that the girls are continuing to drink water, but are refusing food. The fact that they have been pushed to this stage highlights the twin barriers of economic and gender inequality, in a world where girls are denied equal access to education and sexual violence against women is able to prevail.
95% of women in India have reported that they feel compelled to restrict their mobility due to fear of male harassment. The violence inherent in all forms of sexual harassment is impossible to deny. Earlier this month, a 23-year-old woman was gang raped and brutally murdered. The police revealed that the men under investigation smashed her skull with bricks.
The story is sadly all too familiar. According to research by the Indian government, a woman reports a rape every 22 minutes. Yet less than a third of reported rapes lead to conviction. Just five years ago, the death of a 23-year-old medical student Jyoti Singh, raped and murdered on her way home from the cinema, triggered an outcry against the epidemic levels of sexual violence. Tens of thousands took to the streets across the country, calling for laws against sexual violence to be strengthened.
Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India’s government has vowed a "policy of zero tolerance for violence against women.” In 2013, the government introduced tougher laws against rape and sexual harassment, but to the dismay of many campaigners, marital rape remained legal. To truly tackle the problem, policies must target the root causes of sexual violence against women as well as punishment for these crimes, addressing the social norms that enable these violations to occur on a daily basis.
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