IT is around 9:30pm on 16 December, 2012. Jyoti Singh, a 23-year old paramedical student, and her male companion have just watched a screening of Life of Pi.
Wanting to return home, they board an off-duty public bus after being old it is heading towards their destination. On board are five male passengers, including a youth, and the driver.
As the bus moves along, Jyoti’s friend notices it is not taking the expected route and he questions the driver.
The fellow passengers respond with jeers of cultural and moral shaming. Why are an unmarried Indian man and woman out so late at night?
What follows is the horrific gang-rape of Jyoti. In the struggle, Jyoti is sexually brutalised, including with the use of an iron rod.
The male friend attempts to intervene. He is beaten and gagged. Then, almost naked, both are then thrown out of the bus.
Days later in Singapore, Jyoti dies in hospital from what the doctors describe as ‘unspeakable damage to her body’. Jyoti becomes known as ‘Nirbhaya' - the fearless one.
This tragic event sparked widespread outrage. Men and women, young and old, led protests that spilled into the streets of Delhi, then to the rest of India and then throughout the world.
It forced the government of India to respond swiftly to the people’s demands for better treatment and protection of girls and women.
On 23 December 2012, just one week later, the three-member Justice Verma Committee was given 30 days to deliver recommendations for amendments to India’s criminal and related laws. On 23 January 2013, the recommendations were delivered to prime minister Manmohan Singh.
On that committee was retired chief justice Leila Seth; the first woman judge in the Delhi high court and also chief justice of the state high court.
In her assessment, Seth suggested that the report assist break the silence on sexual violence against women by reducing the stigma and encouraging men and women to report cases and speak about their trauma.
Seth’s commentary is amongst the 2016 collection of essays and short stories, ‘Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories’, articulating the experience of being a woman in contemporary Indian society.
Nineteen writers of varying age, religion, caste, profession, political and sexual orientation narrate individual accounts mutually influenced by social pressures deeply entrenched in India’s religious and socio-economic roots.
Some of these personal struggles will resonate with Papua New Guineans – bride price, sexual orientation, economic abuse within relationships and moral shaming for dress choice are all there.
And Seth’s book reinforces two possibilities.
First, individuals through personal action can influence the shifting of cultural barriers.
Secondly, writing about these things enables society to steer its way through exploitation, power and oppression – behaviour which is not only condemned but can be abolished through dialogue with citizens.
It is from this example of literary social activism that I drew inspiration for the theme ‘My Walk to Equality’ - the first collection of writing by Papua New Guinean women writers due for launch on International Women’s Day, 8 March 2017.
“We expect more women in leadership positions but our cultural mindset remains the constraint hindering progress in this regard. More constructive efforts are needed to change attitudes, change mindsets and address critical cultural barriers” - Professor Betty Lovai, 3 November 2016.
Whether it be family and sexual violence, access to safe and compassionate health care and education or promoting non-discriminatory workplace practices, I continue to hold the view that, in issues of inequality, both sides of the equation must participate.
I am encouraged by my fellow Papua New Guinean women writers whose submissions acknowledge the contributions, significance and aspirations of PNG’s boys and men as supporters of women in reducing inequality.
When a society’s primary decision makers are consistently men, it is necessary to even more strenuously support avenues for women to contribute as decision makers.
In this process, PNG-authored literature is a valuable mechanism – even though it is substantially underrated at home.
Would the course of PNG’s history be changed if it became a nation that advocated that its women contributed to decision-making through literature?
Would a more pervasive women’s literature caused the PNG government to have reacted more strongly (as happened in India) to the sorcery-related murder of Kepari Leniata in the highlands? Would the perpetrators have been swiftly brought to justice?
In the case of the Papua New Guinean woman who was allegedly gang-raped by expatriate men in Manus have led to justice instead of silence if PNG had a tradition of a tough and credible women’s literature?
If women were encouraged to write about their experience of giving birth in understaffed, under resourced and often non-compassionate settings, might this influence the prime minister to develop and fund sensible policies to reduce infant and maternal mortality?
The PNG government, international donors and organisations, private corporations and individuals must acknowledge and explore the potential of literature to have a positive impact upon generations of girls, boys, men and women.
These stakeholders must acknowledge (as do Pukpuk Publications, Paga Hill Development Company, Jo Holman and PNG Attitude) that literature can be an important mechanism for reducing inequality, particularly where it is fostered by dysfunctional cultural practices.