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India's latest #MeToo moment: Sexual abuse of female wrestlers

(L-3R) Indian wrestlers Bajrang Punia, Anshu Malik, Vinesh Phogat and Sakshi Malik along with others wrestlers take part in an ongoing protest against the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI), in New Delhi on January 19, 2023, following allegations of sexual harassment to athletes by members of the WFI. Triple Commonwealth Games gold medallist Vinesh Phogat, one of India's most decorated women wrestlers, has accused her federation chief and several coaches of sexually harassing multiple athletes. | AFP via Getty Images/Sajjad Hussain

The world should pay more attention to India’s latest “Me Too” moment. The lack of legal action taken against the President of the Wrestling Federation of India is perhaps the most significant example yet as to why India is still known around the globe as an unsafe place for women.

New Delhi is witnessing the spectacle of women wrestlers (who have won international medals for India) protesting their sexual abuse by the President of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI), Brijbhushan Sharan Singh. They have been protesting for nearly a month at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi and are demanding his arrest. What’s more, Indian wrestlers are now saying the police assaulted them while they were protesting.

The wrestlers originally called off a sit-in protest near the parliament building back in January following a government assurance that their investigation into these serious allegations would be finished within a month.

But alas, assurances of justice ring hollow. So it’s no wonder the female wrestlers have taken their protest “global” now.

The BJP government may be refusing to act quickly because the WFI President happens to be an influential Member of Parliament of the BJP from the State of Uttar Pradesh, and he commands tremendous clout among his constituency.

It’s a sad reality that if men are politically or economically powerful and belong to any privileged and influential castes, victims still know that it is difficult to get their day in court. In this particular case, where other wrestlers and even farmers from northern India have expressed public support for these women, the Supreme Court had to intervene to get the Delhi police to even file a case.

After the horrendous rape and murder of the girl known as “India’s Daughter,” the law requires that if there is a prima facie case, it is to be registered, the culprit is to be arrested, and the due process of law is to run its course. No exceptions.

While a few sportsmen, public figures, and political leaders have stated their support of these women, India’s most elite and wealthiest athletes from the cricket fraternity are condemned by their own silence. This group of sportsmen, barring rare exceptions, has refused to raise their voices not only in these current abuse situations but in other cases of violence and abuse. This sports club and its players are rich, and in order to make their fortune, they choose silence, because the cricket federation is controlled indirectly by powerful politicians who run the government. Similarly, very few well-known stars of Bollywood or even Hollywood have spoken up for these female wrestlers.

The female wrestlers have accused this particular parliamentarian of continuous sexual abuse, alleging scores of female wrestlers have been affected over many years. The fact is these female wrestlers come from poor families and the farming community. To excel and win an international medal for their nation is their dream. When they win, the Indian government is there to congratulate them and bask in their glory.

But now, when these women plead their cases of sexual abuse, they are stonewalled.

Thankfully, a powerful farmer union — from the region where these female wrestlers originate — has stood firm and given the government a two-week ultimatum to act and arrest the politician or face serious consequences.

In the meantime, Singh has recently resigned from his position as the head of the WFI. But as everyone knows, that is not enough for proper justice to be served.

The government seems oblivious that millions of Indian girls are watching this drama unfold. The lack of willingness by authorities to protect and defend these women will not go unnoticed by future generations and young girls worldwide. All the catchy slogans that political parties concoct about protecting and educating girls are the echoes of empty promises. The world’s largest democracy can do better than this. And it must.

Archbishop Joseph D’Souza is an internationally renowned human and civil rights activist. He is the founder of Dignity Freedom Network, an organization that advocates for and delivers humanitarian aid to the marginalized and outcastes of South Asia. He is archbishop of the Anglican Good Shepherd Church of India and serves as the president of the All India Christian Council.

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