Editorial: Tragedies can spark real change

Last updated 05:00 03/01/2013

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OPINION: Too often, it takes a horrific tragedy to force a country to face reality.

The United States' appalling rates of gun crime have been well documented for decades and punctuated by massacres. But it was not till a crazed gunman walked into a primary school in Connecticut last month and shot dead 20 small children and six adults that the country's political leaders started talking seriously about tightening the United States' insanely liberal gun laws.

It is a move even previously staunch supporters of the powerful gun lobby, led by the National Rifle Association, have conceded is necessary.

Before Adam Lanza carried out his slaughter of innocents at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the likes of senators Joe Manchin and Mark Warner had worn their "A" endorsements from the NRA as badges of honour. Within days of the killings, they were calling for tighter controls.

US President Barack Obama has since assigned Vice-President Joe Biden to draw up measures to curtail gun violence.

Of course, many have tried and none have succeeded to tighten firearms laws in the US. However, Mr Obama's order that Mr Biden report in time for this month's state of the union address, in which the president will map out his priorities for the year, suggests he is prepared to tackle an issue that could prove every bit as difficult as the healthcare reforms he pushed through in his first term.

In India, the gang rape of a medical student who later died of her injuries has forced that country to confront its appalling record of sexual violence and the treatment of women.

The unspeakable attack brought thousands of protesters on to the streets of New Delhi to demand tougher penalties for rape, swifter processes to deal with those who are accused and a change in culture among police, whose treatment of victims often adds to their trauma. Shortly after the medical student was attacked, a 17-year-old girl gang-raped in Punjab the month before killed herself after police allegedly told her to accept compensation or marry one of her rapists.

India's ruling Congress Party is now proposing sentences of up to 30 years' jail for rape, a fast-tracking of legal proceedings for sex crimes and a reduction in the age of criminal culpability. It is also proposing chemical castration for convicted rapists.

Those measures will go some way to appeasing Indians who want a hard line taken against sex offenders, but do nothing to address many of the factors that often lie behind such crimes.

As an article in this newspaper on Tuesday pointed out, cultural attitudes, coupled with a severe lack of female police and an acceptance of domestic violence in India, have combined to make that country an extremely difficult place to be a woman.

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It is hoped that the outrage that has spilled on to the streets of India in the past fortnight after the attack on the medical student leads to real change for the lot of the many Indian women who suffer violence, harassment and sexual attack. It is a real tragedy that it took her death to bring action.

- The Dominion Post

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