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Turning point in India, triumph in Philippines for the rights of women

Women's rights have been in the forefront of international concern over the last few weeks.

Up in arms against rape.

Making the biggest headlines were the massive demonstrations in New Delhi and other cities in India provoked by the brutal gang-rape by six men of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student in a moving bus in the Indian capital. The crime, which saw the victim suffer extremely serious wounds in her genitals and intestines, proved to be the trigger for the release of popular anger that had built up over the years over the rise in violence against women.

The statistics are horrific. According to government estimates, almost every 20 minutes, a woman is raped in India. In New Delhi, dubbed the “rape capital of India,” the incidence of rape rose from 572 in 2011 to 661 so far in 2012. Of the 256,329 incidents of violent crime reported for 2011, a total of 228,650, or close to 90 percent, were committed against women.

What accounts for what one writer describes as the “increasingly predatory sexual culture?” For some analysts, the rise in sexual aggression is related to male resentment of the erosion of the traditional subordination of women in India's patriarchal society by women's increasing role in the workforce, their increased mobility, and their growing social and economic empowerment.

Yet the current protests may turn out to be a turning point, for while much of the media reporting has focused on spontaneous demands like the death penalty or chemical castration for rapists and sex offenders, the recent developments may well mark the emergence of a massive militant mass movement in India that will focus on confronting head-on the patriarchal norms propping up the social subordination of women that is at the root of much sexual violence.

Even as India's gender equation may be in the process of transformation, the women's movement registered a historic victory in the Philippines with the passage of the Reproductive Health Bill. The law, which makes family planning an obligatory policy for the current administration and for future ones, was passed Dec. 17 in the House of Representatives and the Senate in the teeth of ferocious opposition from the super-patriarchal Catholic Church hierarchy.

Key provisions of the new law include, among others, the provision of free or cheap contraceptives to poor couples, institutionalization of sex education for students from the sixth grade up, the establishment of maternal care facilities in state-run hospitals, and provision of reproductive health counseling and treatment for women in all hospitals, including those suffering from postabortion complications, while ensuring respect for the rights of health professionals who cannot offer these services owing to religious belief.

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