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Rape Case Ignites National Debate on Violence Against Women in India

January 16, 2013

It has been a month since the fatal rape of a 23-year-old woman by a gang of six men on a moving bus in South Delhi captured headlines in India and around the world. In Delhi, where I live and work, the incident continues to pervade both the media and private conversations as people of all walks of life struggle to come to terms with the horrific crime and its aftermath. Although rapes are reported in Indian newspapers almost every day, the circumstances surrounding this one, combined with simmering public frustration with the police and a range of other issues, triggered mass protests and an overdue national debate on the problem of violence against women in India and what should be done about it.

Protests in Delhi

Delhi residents demonstrate against violence against women in the aftermath of the rape of a 23-year-old Delhi woman. Photo/Wikimedia Commons Nilanjana Roy

Detailed accounts of the crime that took place on the evening of December 16 are widely available online. Although the victim’s name has been withheld by the Indian government as legally required, it too can be found on social media sites. In brief, at 9:30 p.m. the victim and a male friend boarded a private bus to travel home after watching a movie in South Delhi. According to police reports, the driver of the bus and five young men posing as passengers had planned the attack and were trawling the streets for a target. Once on board, the victims were taunted by the “passengers” and a scuffle ensued. The man was beaten and knocked unconscious while the woman, who attempted to defend herself, was assaulted viciously. The two were dumped naked and bleeding alongside a major highway where allegedly neither passersby nor the police came to their immediate assistance.

By no means was this the first such incident in Delhi, which some have dubbed the “rape capital” of India, but the circumstances created a perfect storm of public outrage. Like many in Delhi, the victim’s family had migrated from a rural area to seek a new life in the metropolis, and in the process, become part of the country’s emerging middle class. The victim was a physiotherapy intern with dreams of becoming a doctor. She and her friend had boarded an illegal private bus in the absence of safe public transport, and reportedly waited two hours for medical treatment, problems that resonated with Delhi residents. A mass demonstration on December 21 near the president’s residence began peacefully, but escalated into violent skirmishes with the police and arrests. As protests continued in the ensuing days, the government sent the critically injured woman to a specialized hospital in Singapore, where she died on December 29. At that point, protests spread to several other Indian cities and around the world.

Demonstrations in Delhi have since subsided, but neither media attention nor public debate has waned. The public is calling for stricter laws on sexual violence, speedy prosecution of the accused, and severe punishment. There is concern that one of the accused, whom the victim described as the most brutal of the gang, will be tried in a juvenile court where his maximum sentence would be three years detention. This has led to calls for juvenile justice reform in India, as rising crime has coincided with an increase in the number of unemployed urban youth. There are demands for sensitization of the police and medical professionals who handle rape cases, and the banning of a demeaning procedure known as the “two finger” test that is used to verify sexual activity. More broadly, some have called for changes in school curricula to include instruction on gender rights and sex education.

The government has taken several immediate steps in response to the public outcry. At the direction of Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, the Delhi High Court established five “fast track” courts to try the accused in the case, and the trials are already underway. The Ministry of Home Affairs appointed a judicial committee headed by former Chief Justice J.S. Verma to review the laws on sexual violence and recommend amendments, and constituted a Special Task Force to assess women’s security in Delhi and review police performance on an ongoing basis. Special measures have also been taken by a number of state governments. While these are important moves in the right direction, police and judicial reform are not new subjects in India, and good intentions have often fallen short in implementation. In 1996, the Supreme Court’s landmark verdict in what is known as the “Prakash Singh” case included seven directives to federal and state governments to improve police performance, accountability, and relations with the public. An assessment by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative shows progress in the 16 years since on each of the directives, but also significant work remaining.

Beyond institutional reforms lies the much larger task of reconciling attitudes on the changing role of women in Indian society. Public statements regarding the rape case have revealed a vast divide in mindsets. On one extreme are patriarchal views such as those of Manohar Lal Sharma, defense attorney of three of the accused men, who claimed not to have seen “a single incident or example of rape with a respected lady.” A leading politician questioned whether it is necessary for women to venture out at night, and another suggested that school girls should dress more modestly. At the other end of the spectrum, evinced by the demonstrators in Delhi and other cities, is a growing legion of middle-class Indians who subscribe to increasingly progressive views on gender equality. They cite society’s unequal treatment of women and girls, the objectification of women in popular culture, and the need to reform derogatory practices ranging from female feticide and dowry deaths to the ostracism of widows.

For the past three years, I have overseen programs at The Asia Foundation that support Indian partner organizations to raise awareness and strengthen capacities for countering violence against women in five Indian states and the cities of Delhi and Mumbai. The initiatives focus on public awareness and effective implementation of The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005, with an emphasis on building the capacities and sensitivities of the police, service providers, and local government bodies in handling cases. We are also supporting efforts to change attitudes toward women through programs targeted at specific sectors of society, especially men and boys. While these programs, along with many others supported by the government, UN agencies, and NGOs, are an important part of the puzzle, the problems are deep and change will be incremental.

In a CNN interview last week, Mumbai-born journalist Fareed Zakaria likened the widespread reactions to the December 16 rape and ensuing public outrage to “a sort of Indian Arab Spring,” while cautioning about the need to sustain momentum. It is too early to say whether this will prove a transformational moment for women in India. Even if government reforms proceed at a heightened pace, attitudinal change could take generations. Still, like many in Delhi and elsewhere, I am encouraged by the soul searching this terrible tragedy has brought to the problem of violence against women in India, and moved by the words of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh following the victim’s death: “I want to tell them [the victim's family] and the nation that while she may have lost her battle for life, it is up to us all to ensure that her death will not have been in vain.”

Nick Langton is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in India and can be reached at nlangton@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

One comment on this post:

  1. In the wake of the incident and the mass protests that followed, we at the Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace Network discussed the role of philanthropy in sustaining the momentum. You can read about it here – http://www.p-sj.org/node/1535. We appreciate your thoughts above. It is a much needed conversation among foundations.

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