One year ago, Jyoti Singh Pandey, a 23-year-old student in New Delhi, boarded a bus with a friend and headed home. She never got there. Jyoti was brutally raped by the men on the bus, her injuries severe enough to kill her.
The outcry that followed sent thousands of protesters—women and men—into the streets. That men were part of the protests is significant and signals an important shift in the way we globally respond to violence against women.
Violence against women is the most widespread—and socially tolerated—human rights violation. It is not a women's issue. It's everyone's issue. It is enabled by a culture that views girls and women as a risk and liability. It is excused and perpetuated by individuals and institutions, from street harassers to athletic associations, businesses, law enforcement, the military and more. And by those who keep silent in its face.
But across the globe, more and more men are joining women as leaders and partners in eroding this culture and standing for human dignity and equality. Their individual, collective and institutional actions are what we need in order to challenge norms, change culture, and end the violence that hurts us all.
Breakthrough's "Ring the Bell" campaign calls on men and women to take concrete action to make violence against women unacceptable. (It is the global expansion of Bell Bajao, our internationally-lauded, India-based campaign calling on men to challenge domestic violence, of which Johnson & Johnson was a key founding supporter.) At the campaign launch, actor and activist Sir Patrick Stewart said, "Violence against women is the greatest human rights violation of our generation. Each of us must examine—and change—the ways in which our own behavior might contribute to, enable, ignore, or excuse all forms of such violence. I promise to do so, and to invite other men and allies to do the same."
In India we're seeing promising signs, despite deeply ingrained cultural beliefs that devalue and marginalize girls and women. Breakthrough's "Nation Against Early Marriage" campaign works to involve fathers—who have all the say in the matter—in ending the illegal but persistent practice of early marriage. In India, 47 percent of women are married by age 18. Our research there revealed that the practice continues, in part, because fathers see it as a way to keep their daughters safe from premarital sex and harassment.
Early marriage is anything but "safe." Girls married early are cut off from educational opportunities and exposed to psychological trauma, domestic violence, and high rates of mortality due to premature and continuous childbearing. These injustices last a lifetime, with devastating impact on girls, families, communities and nations.
The good news: Fathers—like the father of a girl I'll call Kamla—are beginning to go against the grain.
Kamla is from the Indian state of Jharkhand, which has one of the highest rates of early marriage in India—or anywhere. Married when she was 12 or 13, she—like so many other young brides—suffered abuse and violence by her husband. In a rare move, Kamla's father took her back in. Now he vows to challenge the practice, even among his own relatives. "I will not allow the mistake I made with my daughter to happen to anyone else in front of my eyes," he said.
If more fathers do what Kamla's father did, things will change for girls in India. If more boys and men everywhere commit themselves, their communities, their companies, and more to stepping up and speaking out against seemingly ingrained and "normal" practices—from name calling to harassing to assaulting girls and women—the more likely it is that we'll never see another incident like the one that killed Jyoti.
These cultural shifts may not happen overnight, but they will add up. They will add up to the global tipping point we need on the issue of our time.
We can't bring Jyoti back. But we can hold the men we know—and even the men we don't know—accountable for stepping up and speaking out against the everyday behaviors, cultural practices and institutionalized inequalities that continue to harm women. When a critical mass of men and the organizations and institutions led by men join women in taking such action, we will glimpse a future in which women will be safe on the streets and in their homes—and in which all mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, will live with dignity, equality, and hope.
© 2014 Omega Institute for Holistic Studies