The World Economic Forum’s Miniya Chatterji and Sushant Palakurthi Rao asks whether outrage at the rape of a student in New Delhi will help to change attitudes towards women.

At the World Economic Forum on India in Gurgaon in November 2012, we dedicated an entire pillar of the programme to the importance of prioritizing girls and women, who make up half of India’s human capital. A plenary session entitled “Changing Mindsets: India’s Missing Women” sought to explore solutions for India to address the low value placed on females, challenge the conspiracy of silence, empower women and inspire change at home. Despite an illustrious cast of panellists, the plenary hall was not even half full, raising the burning question: “Does India not care about the critical challenges its women and girls face?”

At the same meeting, social activist and dancer Mallika Sarabhai enacted the plight of a young rural woman who had been raped by the principal of her school. Not only did she stun the audience, her 10-minute dance demonstrated how the blame fell easily on the victim, leading to family and societal exclusion. Mallika demonstrated how, from that point onward, the woman faced a solitary and painful battle.

A few days later, we met with Lakshmi in her home in the Ambam district in Andhra Pradesh. Lakshmi had been raped every week since having reached puberty because it was the tradition of the Jogin community to which she belonged. The Jogin tradition had been outlawed by the Indian government since 1988, but she explained to us that it persisted because the mindsets of people are difficult to change.

Next to physical assault, violence is also a mindset that denies a life of dignity. It occurs when a woman suffers marital abuse and insensitivity, gender-related discrimination at the workplace, sexual advances against her wishes in public spaces, in the workplace, by any trusted person or in the family.

Violence also lies in the denial of having a life of choice. India’s gay, lesbian and transgender population is estimated to be around 70 million, but in fact, most of these individuals remain faceless in fear of social ostracism and physical assault. Marital rape or even the deprivation of conjugal intimacy is violence as much as it is an assault on the most intimate sensibilities of a woman.

Ultimately, both men and women in our society need to change how they perceive human relationships. Only weeks after the World Economic Forum on India, and following the vicious gang rape of a female Indian student in New Delhi, thousands of men and women poured onto the streets to express their outrage – not just for this one heinous crime, but for their general anger at an ongoing, prevailing societal mindset that ignores, if not condones, acts of violence and aggression against girls and women. This brings some hope that perhaps each one gathered there would be an inch more wary of their own disposition towards women in the family, workplace and public space. That would, indeed, be the start of moving towards the solution.

Violence, after all, also occurs when you don’t place responsibility where it lies. The responsibility, in fact, lies with all of us. We are the men and women who let ourselves be predators and accusers, or alternatively, agents of change. Effective laws and enforcement are the basic minimum to curb violence against women, but would they not be even more effective if mindsets were to change?

Authors: Miniya Chatterji is Senior Manager at the World Economic Forum and Founder of The Stargazers Foundation. Sushant Palakurthi Rao is Senior Director and Head of Asia at the World Economic Forum.

Image: Demonstrators shout slogans during a protest for a gang rape victim, who was assaulted in New Delhi. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi