You mentioned widows' situation in your home country of India. Widows apart, India has been seen as the poster child of liberal democracy in the developing world. Now we're suddenly seeing a string of atrocious rapes. Do these rapes point to a more disturbing reality?
Yes, these cases have shaken India, and they have focused global attention on violence against women and girls in India. Violence against women in India takes different forms: acid attacks, rapes, domestic violence, workplace harassment. At the heart of it lie sexism and negative attitudes towards women. The public outrage over these rapes prompted the government to set up a special commission that quickly set up new recommendations on ending violence against women. This, in turn, led to a public debate about the issue, including how to train the police to be gender-sensitive, but equally about prevention, for example addressing gender stereotypes and cultural norms in Indian society. Respect for women is deeply rooted in Indian culture and traditions. For example, three female gods are central in Hinduism. At the same time, sexist behavior and discrimination against women has become rooted over time. So, the rapes have rekindled the gender-equality debate in India like never before.
So, as horrendous as the rapes were, it was good for India to have that wake-up call?
Absolutely. India has had a female prime minister and female chief ministers of some of the largest states, and thanks to quotas 40 percent of our 1.5 million village and district councilors are women. But there's been a conspiracy of silence around crimes against women. A big part of the problem is poverty; poorer women and women in rural areas are more vulnerable. Women are even trafficked.
From negative to positive, from widows to women in general: Which developing country is the best country in which to be a woman today?
We're not in the business of grading countries, but the important thing to know is that awareness in developing countries about gender equality has never been higher. It's no longer a soft issue of human rights but an issue that matters for economic growth. That's a great leap. Countries are realizing that when you invest in women, you invest in communities and entire nations. Women are the highest-return investment you can have. That's why they shouldn't just get microcredit but proper bank loans. But every change begins with awakening and accountability, and many countries are now very advanced in this area, for example Brazil, India, South Africa.