Late Sunday night a 23-year-old woman was gang raped, beaten, and left to die by six men as she attempted to make her way home on a bus after catching a movie in the Indian capital of New Delhi. For all of India’s economic progress over the last two decades, Indian women still struggle for the most basic rights many in the West take for granted—personal safety, freedom, and respect.
This heinous incident incited protests in New Delhi, but unfortunately rape and violence against women have become commonplace in India, especially in the nation’s capital. People are tired of government platitudes and the indifference of law enforcement toward crimes against women. Yet this incident has gone largely unnoticed in other parts of India and across the globe. It should not.
Governments around the world—including the United States—multinational corporations, and international development and human rights organizations expend valuable resources on women’s empowerment programs in developing nations such as India. For them, this horrifying incident is a tangible chance to advocate for stronger policies to protect women from violence, harassment, and discrimination.
But in addition to changes in policy, governments, multinational corporations, and other international institutions that fund empowerment programs should ensure that the programs they support include social awareness campaigns to incite the cultural change needed to transform women in India and nations like it from victims into strong, equal players in society—from a perceived liability into an asset.
Data show that investing in women pays big dividends. The World Bank’s 2012 World Development Report documented that eliminating gender barriers could increase labor productivity by as much as 25 percent in some countries. In their own study, Goldman Sachs found that gender gaps in education in many developing countries have depressed annual per capita growth of income by perhaps as much as 0.9 percentage points. Goldman Sachs’s research also showed that bringing more women into the labor force would raise the annual growth rate of gross domestic product by 1 percentage point in India and even more in countries with worse gender gaps.
These facts have fueled growing support for women’s empowerment programs. Such programs tend to focus on the economic empowerment of women through better access to finance, more opportunities for employment, and entrepreneurship. All are worthy causes to support.
Yet until women feel safe enough to commute to work, until they are free to leave their homes without having to seek permission from every member of their household, and until they are given respect in and out of the workplace, women cannot fully leverage the investments that donors make in economic empowerment programs.
There are a number of organizations across India—such as Maitri, the Self-Employed Women’s Association, and Saath—that work on women’s issues. But the funding that many such organizations receive is often tied to quantitative targets of the number of women they have helped acquire loans or the number of women they have trained and placed in employment. Workshops to help women exit abusive relationships or to develop their confidence and self-esteem, as well as public campaigns that encourage men to view women as equal partners, still need support from international funders and advocates.
Changing the mindset of the men and women in society to afford women the rights they deserve is a long-term proposition, and it is not always something that can be quantitatively measured.
The protests in the wake of Sunday night’s horrific crime, though largely localized to New Delhi, may be a sign of a nascent social awareness that progress as a country depends on instituting safety, freedom, and respect for both women and men. People throughout India and the international community have a responsibility to join the movement.
Sabina Dewan is the Director of Globalization and International Employment at the Center for American Progress.