Glenn C. Kharkongor
Violence against girls and women is on the rise all over the globe. Some of these recent crimes have attracted international media coverage. A group of boys from a football team raped a girl in Steubenville, Ohio, USA; a 14-year-old girl was shot in the head for insisting that girls have the right to go to school in Pakistan; in Britain a popular BBC broadcaster was able to abuse hundreds of girls over six decades, and in India, a gang rape in Delhi galvanized the people into action.
Throughout history women victims have suffered at the hands of the ‘system’. At first there is an attempt at denial or diminution of the crime, and then there is the blaming of the victim: her clothes, her lifestyle, her attitude. There is reluctance of many victims to report the crime, and of police to register the complaint. The interrogation is humiliating and the medical examination is often insensitive. The victims are not provided with reassurance or counseling. Court cases take years and the conviction rate is low. Meanwhile politicians, religious leaders and other public figures make insensitive comments. The list goes on and on.
Society is refusing to remain passive. Many movements have emerged. An example is One Billion Rising, a global campaign calling for the one billion women who have been beaten or raped and the men who love them, to strike, rise and dance to end violence against women and girls. This movement is gathering momentum across the planet with increasing vigour and potency. The social Indian activist Kamla Bhasin calls it a “feminist tsunami”. In 182 countries, groups and communities are planning to rise and voice their outrage and aspirations. Coalitions are being formed, with a new openness that bridges socioeconomic strata, religions, gender and age.
Maybe the tide is turning. In the recent US elections, anti-women candidates were rejected by voters. In Pakistan, a bastion of patriarchy and inured to violence against women, there was widespread revulsion at the shooting of the schoolgirl Malala, in India; the President’s daughter condemned the insensitive comments of her brother. In India, sexual violence has become adominant issue. The spontaneous outpouring of citizen protest against the gang rape in Delhi was seen all over India. It brought together diverse sections of society with a singular voice and a collective conscience. The government was forced to respond to this demonstration of a common cause.
A citizen’s conference on the security of women was recently held in Shillong. It was organized by ICARE (Informed Conscious and Responsible Existence), a civil society group that advocates good governance.
ICARE brought together a diverse group of academic institutions, legal and media groups and musicians and artists on a common platform to express their anguish and views on the trend of escalating crimes against women in the country. The conference, held at Martin Luther Christian University was a unique confluence of academic lectures, statistical reports, music, art and poetry, an intellectual and emotional blend that touched the minds and hearts of the participants. At the end of the day-long conference, asset of recommendations were compiled which will be given to government, police, educational institutions, religious organizations, traditional leaders and other stakeholders.
The Rise of Civil Society is perhaps the most significant social phenomenon of our time: the sudden blossoming of countless spontaneous movements and crusades for social and governmental change that transcend class caste, religion even cut across the borders of countries. Local and global issues have been taken up by civil society and governments and international agencies have begun to take notice, not only because of the upsurge of public expression, but because these movements have an inherent integrity.
It was a political figure, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who has conjured an oft-quoted metaphor:
“These three essential elements of a free nation — representative government, a well-functioning market, and civil society — work like three legs of a stool. They lift and support nations as they reach for higher standards of progress and prosperity. …Civil society undergirds both democratic governance and broad-based prosperity.”
There are a number of factors that have given rise to this sociological phenomenon. The end of the Cold War, with its dominant concern with military security, allowed a shift in focus to social issues. With more attention on social issues, communities across countries found common causes. Non-government organizations found space to take up these causes and created a climate where peoples’ organizations could participate more directly in national and international discourse. People started seeing themselves as common members of the human race, with the same social and economic concerns. The computer and telecommunications revolution has enabled the spread of information and ideas, opening the door to freer and more informal modes of expression and dissemination.
Today, NGOs take on many tasks that were formerly in the ambit of governments. They conduct social research and deliver social services. They contribute to policy analysis and program implementation along with governments. They are effective because they are close to communities, are quick on the uptake and work efficiently, often using volunteers and are cost effective.
A distinctive aspect of civil society is that they often appear leaderless. Prominent names are not thrown up or created by these campaigns. Their main characteristic is that these are mass movements. However, hitherto under-represented sections of society are appearing in the forefront. The Arab Spring was led by youth, using social media to share grievances, ideas and plans. Technology savvy youth spread messages rapidly, organizing meetings and protests at short notice, making them appear spontaneous and taking governments and police off guard. Women are in the forefront too. TV images show the vast numbers of women of all ages who have taken to the streets with pickets and placards.
This is the Civil Society Age.
Glenn C. Kharkongor is vice chancellor of Martin Luther Christian University, Shillong