India rapes on: We need change, not candle light marches

Even after a month since the dastardly gang-rape and murder of a young girl in Delhi shook the conscience of the nation and generated an unprecedented uprising of its people, India’s shameless tale of raping its women continues unabated.

Reportedly in Delhi alone, there were at least 70 more rapes, roughly two a day, since the incident, and the last we heard was from Batinda in Punjab, where a girl suffered rape and other criminal acts in an incident similar to that in Delhi.

By today evening, the rape-tally will be up by several notches.

If one thought that the Delhi outcry and the promises of the leaders, including by India’s most powerful politician Sonia Gandhi; the prospect of death-penalty for rapists; and the intense hatred that the Delhi-rapists evoked would at least partially reduce the incidence of rapes in the country, one is sadly mistaken.


India’s behaviour towards its women hasn’t changed, and it will not change any time soon even if the Delhi rapists are sent to the gallows through a fast track legal process.

There is enough science to show that political assertions, physical violence, public outrage and threats of capital punishment do not change criminal behaviour, either in the short term or the long term. If they do, the Delhi outrage should have created some fear in the minds of rapists not just in Delhi, but also in Goa, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Punjab.

The writing on the wall is clear - the present steps are not going to reduce the incidence of rape and violence against women because socially conditioned behaviours don’t change overnight and quick-fixes never work.

What the governments have done so far are only quick fixes. What needs to change are the social controls. Only when societies, households and individuals (both men and women) start treating women as equal - and not as targets of oppression, violence, and sexual gratification - things will change. And this doesn’t happen by changing laws and by threatening to kill.

Unfortunately, behaviour-change takes time and systematic efforts at social transformation; but it’s unavoidable if our governments are serious in checking the violence and crime against women.

A broad understanding of some aspects of behaviour change theories will be helpful in getting a sense of the situation as well as devising working solutions. Application of these theories have proven efficacy in public health, education, and criminology. We won’t get into the intricacies of all the theories and will focus more on their relevance to crime.

According to American psychologist and behaviourist B F Skinner, individuals learn beaviour by duplicating what they observe - it’s a process of imitation and reinforcement.

The “juvenile” rapist in Delhi could be a reasonable example of this “echoic behaviour”. In the eyes of the law, he was a young boy, but in reality, he had already duplicated what his circle of adult-friends were doing. He could possibly graduate into a more complex criminal unless there is intervention to change his behaviour. The other criminals involved too would have had such influences, going by the reported social background they had.

What is also relevant in this context is the “social learning theory”, which places emphasis on the individual’s environment which shapes his behaviour. If the community and social environment around a person treats women as objects of oppression, violence and sexual gratification, that is what he will pick up. This is the context in which we should examine the outrageously shameless treatment of women in our tele-serials and films, whether Jaya Bachchan cries in the Parliament or Sharmila Tagore justifies item dances on TV while speaking up for women.

In turn, the individual’s behaviour contributes to vitiating the environment he lives in - the reciprocal interactions between the individual and his environment, make the crime socially sanctioned. If we want to change, we have to break this cycle.

The community’s role in discouraging criminal behaviour is also underscored by the “theory of reasoned action.” It notes that intention is an important factor in determining behaviour and it is influenced both by what one thinks as good or bad, and how society perceives it. If society perceives that aggressing a woman or eve-teasing - as we routinely watch in films - as normal, and a boy grows up in such a society, it certainly shapes his behaviour towards woman.

If violence against women has to stop, boys and men have to change their behaviour, preceded by their ideas and thoughts. If the government and our leaders want this to happen, they have to break away from their lack of imagination and get scientific. If the country can rely on science for its rockets and satellites, why can’t it do the same for social change?

Behavioural change, according to the “state of change model”, is a five-step process. It starts with a thought by an individual on his behaviour, followed by a desire and intention to change, and the actual process of change. In the best case scenario, he finally maintains his changed behaviour although there could be relapses.

These changes require enormous efforts from the people and society around the individual. This is where our government should act.

This is accepted science. Instead, what have we heard? Punishment, more punishment and ever increasing incidence of rapes and violence.

The popular belief is that punishment leads to behaviour change. Does it really happen?

No. Other than some meagre deterrence, it doesn’t really change our bad ways. In “About Behaviourism”, Skinner notes that "punished behavior is likely to reappear after the punitive consequences are withdrawn...Perhaps the greatest drawback is the fact that punishment does not actually offer any information about more appropriate or desired behaviors. While subjects might be learning to not perform certain actions, they are not really learning anything about what they should be doing.”

The Australian Psychological Society, in a 1995 paper, noted that “punitive approaches do not teach alternative acceptable behaviours. Neither does punishment appear to have strong deterrent effects on the rest of the community.”

The greatest recent example of behaviour change is the turning of the AIDS tide by purely altering the sexual conduct of people. Multiple partners and unprotected sex was an age-old behaviour that was hard to change, but there was no other way to escape AIDS-deaths.

There were obstacles galore - illiteracy, difficulty in reaching out to communities, changing the mindset, and providing services. But when all people concerned worked on the fundamentals, it worked. Today, a sex worker in Thailand or Cambodia will not entertain her client without a condom; while in most parts of the world, the AIDS-incidence is going down.

Therefore, if India wants its women to be safe, it has to invest in behaviour change policies and infrastructure. There has to be massive communication campaigns, perhaps on a scale larger than the multi-billion dollar AIDS campaigns, on violence against women.

The token events such as “16 days of activism against gender based violence”, stand-up and candle-light events should be dumped in favour of transformative efforts. Violence against women should be as fundamental an issue as illiteracy or public health.

As the Australian Psychological Society noted, “anti social and criminal behaviour often have their roots in childhood and adolescence. It's likely to be cost effective for society to allocate resources to preventing the development of these behaviours, through family, school and community-based programmes than to attempt to treat them once established.”

Unfortunately, short-cuts and popular quick-fixes have become the habit for politicians who run our governments. For us to change our behaviour, our governments and politicians have to change their behaviour.

Otherwise, we will keep counting the daily tally of rapes and dowry deaths.

Updated Date: Jan 21, 2013 16:15 PM

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