'Well behaved women seldom make history'

Transcript of a speech by Sir James Bevan KCMG, UK High Commissioner to India at the release of the publications “Decoding the Law” and “A Guide For Survivors of Sexual Violence”, Delhi 10 December 2014.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Human Rights Day

Today is human rights day. Human rights are for everyone – for people everywhere. And feminism is or should be for everyone too, because feminism is the radical notion that women are people.

So I am proud to be a feminist. I am proud to be here today to support the human rights of everyone, and in particular the human rights of half the people in the world – women. And I am proud to show my personal support, and that of the British government, for your efforts to prevent sexual violence against women everywhere.

This is personal for me. I am the proud father of three daughters. I know women – friends, colleagues, family - who have suffered sexual violence. I have seen the damage it does. And in my career I have also learnt something very simple and very positive: that there is a magic bullet for successful development and it can be summed up in two words: educate girls. Educated girls become empowered women. Empowered women make their own futures, and in doing so make a better future for us all.

Sexual violence is not just an Indian problem. It is a global pandemic. The official statistics say that one in three women in the world suffer sexual abuse or violence at some time in their lives. The real figures are certainly much, much higher.

We face the challenge of sexual violence against women in the UK too. So while we hope that our Indian friends can learn from our own experiences of tackling the problem, we in Britain can learn lessons from you here India too. If we are to fight this problem successfully, we need to be strong. And together we are stronger.

This is not just important for me. It is important for my government. The British government works with our partners around the world to fight discrimination and violence against women.

In 2012 the then British Foreign Minister, William Hague, launched a global initiative to prevent sexual violence. Our aim is to enhance the capacity of countries, institutions, and communities to stop it, to support the survivors, and to end impunity for the perpetrators. Earlier this year in London we hosted the largest ever global summit on preventing sexual violence. We in Britain are proud that this has now grown into a major international initiative.

India faces its own challenges in tackling violence and discrimination against women. Every year the World Economic Forum writes a report on the Global Gender Gap, comparing the situation for women in different countries around the world. It looks at participation in the economy, in politics, in education, and at health and survival rates to measure the relative equality between men and women in each country.

The latest Global Gender Gap report, in 2014, looked at 142 countries, ranking each of them in order of female equality. At the top, ranked number 1, was Iceland. The UK was 26th. India was ranked at number 114. In terms of female health and survival, which measures sex ratios and healthy life expectancy, India was ranked even worse - 141 out of 142 countries, the second worst country in the world.

So no one would seriously contest that Indian women and girls face huge problems today. You know those problems far better than I do. But nor would anyone contest that India has made significant progress over recent years in tackling those problems.

And it has made that progress because of brave individuals, men as well as women, who have fought for that progress. They are everywhere, and in my three years here, travelling to every one of India’s 29 states, I have met some of them.

You find some of those inspirational individuals in government: here at the centre and in the states, there are politicians and bureaucrats, district collectors and heads of panchayats, dedicated to improving the lives of women. You find them in the Indian legal system – brave judges, lawyers and policemen and women who are fighting for women’s rights. You meet them in parliaments and in universities, in businesses and in NGOs. And you meet them in obscure villages where nobody ever goes. But they are there, and they are gradually improving the lot of women in this great country.

Several of the people playing a leading role in this struggle are in this room today, and I salute each of you. But many more are not. Indeed many of the most important people fighting for women’s rights will never be known or recognised. They are the ordinary people at local level striving to make the world a better place by improving the lot of women and girls. Let us salute them too today.

The American writer Alice Walker said that the most common way people give up power is by thinking that they don’t have any. We do have power, all of us, often more than we know. It is important to understand that, and to understand how to use the power you have.

Just as important is to understand that you have rights and to know how to ensure that they are honoured.

That is why I am delighted to be here to support the two publications which we are launching today in Hindi. I was proud to launch the English language version with you earlier this year, and I am doubly pleased to be here again today to launch these new Hindi versions. They will give power to the people in the language that they speak – in particular to those women and girls who have suffered sexual violence or harassment themselves.

I congratulate the Lawyers Collective Women’s Rights Initiative, its Executive Director Ms Jaising, and everyone else involved in this initiative. I am delighted that we are supporting you. We will continue to do so.

Before I end my remarks let me share with you one of my favourite quotations, which my daughters often cite to me. It is this: “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” Today I salute all the women, well behaved and badly behaved, who have made history. I encourage all of you to keep on behaving badly.

Gandhiji, I think, would be with us on this. So let me close by recalling what Gandhi said many years ago, which is as true today as it was then. He said:

Many people, especially ignorant people, want to punish you for speaking the truth, for being correct, for being you. Never apologise for being correct, for being years ahead of your time. If you’re right and you know it, speak your mind. Speak your mind. Even if you are a minority of one, the truth is still the truth.

Published 10 December 2014