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What buses say about India today

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PUNE, India -- The term "bus" has taken on a whole new context since the rape and murder of a young woman in Delhi last December.

Her fatal error was boarding what appeared to be a public bus at 8:30 in the evening. She died of her injuries just a few days before I came to India in early January, but her story and its repercussions live on.

Like sexual abuse of minors in the Catholic Church, the whole subject of violence against women and girls in India is now out of the closet.

Every day, The Times of India is full of new rape cases, as well as old ones that have never come to trial.

Times Now, the most popular TV news show in English, has featured prominent personalities debating who was to blame and how women could be protected in the future.

Meanwhile, all over the country, women mounted huge demonstrations, demanding action.

For me, the demonstrations were the most promising development. Thousands of women who had never demonstrated for anything before were out on the streets.

The talking heads have moved on to other issues, but the women who took to the streets will never forget their mission and their potential power. That is my hope.

I have a particular affection for India. I taught here in the 1960s, and now I am married to an Indian national and spend the winters here. I like to remind my feminist friends back home India is not a special case. What about the rape and murder of Helen Betty Osborne?

Still, despite the brutality against women involved in both these cases and many others, I try to remain an optimist.

Surely once power is shared, once women (First Nations, immigrants, etc.) occupy their rightful place, the incidence of abuse will plummet.

At the moment, however, I have to admit India is a few steps behind Canada in that regard.

Let me give you a personal example. A year ago, I made arrangements to meet the daughter of a friend for lunch. Sonam was studying pharmacy at a university a little out of town, so I suggested she take a local bus and meet me at a restaurant on MG Road.

I was taken aback when she pulled up on a borrowed scooter, without a helmet.

Over lunch, she admitted she would never travel on a local bus by herself. Women who travel alone are targets of harassment and no one comes to their defence.

After that, I began to notice most buses are, indeed, full of young men. The same is true of the metro in Delhi and the local trains in Mumbai (though a few cars are reserved for women). This phenomenon is explained only partly by young women seeking alternative transportation because of their fear of harassment.

The labour-force participation rate for women in India is still low and appears to be declining. In Canada, 62 per cent of women are in the labour force (compared to 72 per cent of men). In India, the figure is 29 per cent of women compared to 81 per cent of men.

In other words, Indian women are still expected to be the "angels of the home." Those who need to travel to work (or to school) are in the minority.

A few weeks earlier, when I visited Sonam and her parents, they were planning a wedding. Sonam has graduated in pharmacy and will seek her first job after her wedding.

But the wedding is the priority at the moment. She is 23 and her parents have found her a good match. If they wait too long, if they wait until she has established her career, "the bloom will be off the rose" and no one will want her.

At least, that is what her parents believe, and they are the experts.

For the past month, Gillette has been running a TV ad calling for "an army of men" to protect the women of India.

Is that what is really needed? Isn't it time for women to stand up for themselves? But how can that happen as long as smart, young women like Sonam continue to carry the burden of time-consuming studies followed by early marriage?

Yes, there are some powerful women in India: Sonia Gandhi leads the Congress party and Mamata Banerjee is chief minister of West Bengal, to name a few. But only in the last election did women manage to win slightly more than 10 per cent of the seats in the Lok Sabha (India's parliament).

Until women achieve a critical mass in all areas of public life, and feel free to ride a bus, the battle for equality has not been won.

Faith Johnston is author of A Great Restlessness, a biography of Dorise Nielsen, the first woman elected to Parliament from western Canada. She lives in Winnipeg and Pune, India.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 15, 2013 A11

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