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Nothing really changes until the culture changes

A year ago, India seemed to be looking upon itself in horror. A horrific gang-rape had occurred on a Delhi that seemed to shock the nation. Moral outrage filled the airwaves; punitive sentences were promised. This could never be allowed to happen again…

And then…what? Nothing much. In fact, the reverse seems to have occurred: a grisly procession of gang-rapes has been in the headlines, each more gruesome in its details than the last. The women of the land are aghast, the judges delivering more punishment, the police promising vigilance, the politicians vowing change…and yet, not much seems to improve. It will be a long time before India’s culture of sexual violence dies away.

What’s going on here? Surely the Delhi case that made headlines around the world could not have made things worse? Not at all; the actual incidence of rape is unlikely to have gone up; it is just that victims feel empowered to report things they would have kept hidden in the past; and media attention is now acute. So it appears to be a sudden outbreak of madness, when actually these cases have always been happening.

Jump back across the Indian Ocean to our own land. Let me not discuss the sexual violence issue here (though the problem is just as serious) but focus on something else: road accidents. You can pretty much rest assured that in any given month in Kenya you will hear of many awful car crashes killing dozens at a time. We have one of the world’s worst road casualty rates, and we know it.

Here, too, there has been much hand-wringing. This is unacceptable, say the politicos. Things must change, say the editorials. We are introducing a raft of measures, say the technocrats – hefty penalties, alcohol testing, night bans for buses. So we will fix this problem very soon…

But will we? Like India’s rapes, our road behaviour won’t be cured by intentions or strategies alone; they require a monumental change in culture.

India’s sexual violence is not just a few men behaving badly who need to be expunged from society – it is a generations-old culture of primitive attitudes towards women. These attitudes emerge in their most violent manifestation in the form of feral gangs who target lone women – but versions of those attitudes are present in the average Indian male, too, just as they are in all fundamentally patriarchal societies. Women are belittled even before they are born, as India’s shocking female feticide statistics show. In life, they are kept behind their male counterparts and encouraged to think of themselves purely as support acts in the greater glory of the male. It is no surprise at all that they are the object of sexual violence.

In Kenya, we certainly have a problem enforcing law and order on the roads, as any casual drive on any street on any day would prove. But the problem is one of an embedded culture: of reckless driving; of disdain for rules and order; of a me-first, me-quickly attitude; of everyday roadside corruption; of policemen engorging themselves to look the other way.

Whether you’re trying to cure rapes or bad driving, all your strategies will fall flat unless they address the cultural core of the problem. How is culture changed? Slowly and systematically. By setting examples and creating role models at the highest level of society; by educating and sensitizing children at a young age; by relentless campaigning in everyday life. But first and foremost, by believing in the change.

Rapes in India; road carnage in Kenya; gun violence in the US; teenage binge drinking in the UK: all of these are about prevailing cultures, unspoken values sitting below the surface of polite society. We need punitive deterrents, of course we do; but until we are honest about culture and attitudes, we cannot win the long-term war against bad behaviour.

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