Waking up to gender justice: A home for Nirbhaya

nirbhayaSix months after the rape that sparked an unprecedented national outrage, the courageous spirit of a 23-year-old rape victim has found a home in the heart of the Indian capital.

India’s President Pranab Mukherjee laid the foundation stone of the new building of the National Commission of Women June 11, which has been rechristened “Nirbhaya Bhawan” (Fearless Chambers) in memory of a young physiotherapist who battled her rapists fearlessly, and displayed an exemplary will to live till her dying moment.

The National Commission for Women was instituted by the Indian government in 1992 to safeguard the interest of women. Twenty-one years on, this organisation has moved into a permanent headquarters, which will serve as the physical nexus for women’s socio-economic empowerment in India.

“The recent happenings have hurt me,” Mukherjee said, referring to the Delhi gang rape and other reports of crimes against women in the last few months. Society needs to be more sensitive to women and accord them greater respect, he said. ”Only when our ancient values of treating women with respect and dignity are formally embraced can we consider ourselves a civilized society.”

The unidentified victim of the gang rape was named Nirbhaya by the media as she became an emblem of the fight to end violence against women in India. Invoking the spirit of Nirbhaya, the president said: “My appeal to all on this occasion is to create adequate awareness so that we can fight against this evil.”  “We have decided to name the building after the lady who fought the courageous battle in the most adverse and painful circumstances. And it is important for women in the country to be ‘Nirbhaya’ (without fear),” said Mamta Sharma, chairperson of the NCW. The NCW has been widely recognised and appreciated for the pivotal role that it has played in the empowerment of women in India.

The NCW headquarters is modern inside and out. The green building uses solar panels for some electricity needs and boasts rainwater-harvesting functionality. It has several amenities like a ladies’ common room, crèche, counseling rooms and a 300-seat auditorium to host programmes and screen documentaries. The NCW plans to conduct gender sensitization lectures and interactive sessions on women’s rights for police personnel, members of civil society and students. The project is estimated to have cost Rs 17 crores (around $3 million USD).

However, many wonder if opening a building after the name of a rape victim is just tokenism. From January 1, 2013 through February 15, a total of 150 rape cases had been reported in New Delhi. It is no wonder India is ranked third in the world for reported rapes.

Anisha Padhee, a feminist and a women’s rights activist, is not sanguine about the future. “The newspapers will be full of inspiring stories about women… and will continue reporting… and then, we’ll be overpowered by sudden amnesia,” she said. “Companies will go about doing their business as usual…the 1,000 crores will be in the pockets of corrupt officials sooner than we can spell N-I-R-B-H-A-Y-A, and guess what, women will continue getting raped. Our world will move on.”

Is the NCW’s move yet another ruse to pacify the angered? The jury is still out on it. Either way, Nirbhaya Bhawan now seems to have become “a living symbol for those who feel the need for its presence.”