A series of recent high-profile rape cases has drawn international attention to the widespread problem of sexual violence faced by India’s women. A rape is recorded every 21 minutes, with many thousands more unreported. The challenges faced by Indian women are not contained to sexual violence, however, with India recently ranked as the worst G20 country in which to be female. So, has anything changed in the wake of recent events?
Brutally gang raped and beaten on a bus in Delhi, then thrown onto the motorway to die, the plight of a young student known as ‘India’s daughter’ in December of last year has prompted an unprecedented outpouring of anger and sadness for her and for India’s women in general. Pressure on Indian authorities to act has been sustained through two more high profile cases: that of a Chinese woman (again in Delhi) in January 2013 and of a Swiss woman in March 2013 (in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh). However, the furore surrounding these three particular cases, particularly the first, detracts from the fact that many less high-profile cases have been, and continue to be, brushed aside as unimportant. Indeed, Indian police are still being criticised for their unsatisfactory handling of other alleged rape cases. Only this month protesters took to the streets to decry police conduct in the rape and kidnap case of a five year old girl.
In Delhi, authorities have implemented a series of measures to try to keep India’s women safe on the streets, including a 24-hour helpline and increased policing. Women are also being advised to learn self-defence techniques, to avoid dark and run-down streets, and to dress “properly” to avoid being raped. Such advice may be well-meaning, but it unfairly places the onus on women to prevent rape, rather than tackling the perpetrators of the crime. A new rape law has recently been passed, but human rights lawyer V. Suresh convincingly argues that punishment and prosecution are only part of the answer. He and many others agree that a change in India’s general attitude towards women and girls is desperately needed, for sexual violence is only one example of their maltreatment. With sons traditionally preferred to daughters, the practice of aborting female foetuses has led to a highly unbalanced sex ratio. This, in turn, creates a market for trafficking, with cases in 2012 up 122% from 2011. Further problems faced by women include kidnapping, abduction, torture and molestation, and their incidence has been rising. Women are also neglected on the most basic level, receiving inferior levels of healthcare, medicine, and nutrition than men.
With violence towards women, both sexual and otherwise, a daily occurrence, why has the attack on the Delhi student provoked such a strong response? The assault was particularly vicious, but other similarly brutal attacks have gone virtually unreported. Social worker Uma Subramanian says that this case has raised such high emotions ‘not only because of the brutality but also because the girl was “spotless” according to the moral brigade of India.’ Subramanian questions whether the story would have received such attention if the woman had been a dancer or model – the answer to this is clear. The rape’s location is doubtless also significant, with rape cases outside the capital gaining less coverage. In September 2012, a girl in the rural state of Haryana was gang-raped by a group of twelve men, yet that case barely caused a ripple of interest. The world’s eyes may be on Delhi, which, with more rapes annually than any other Indian city, has been dubbed the country’s “rape capital”, but sexual violence is an issue countrywide. It is no good if recent measures introduced change the situation in Delhi but nowhere else.
The new rape law now includes charges for stalking, voyeurism and acid attacks, though not marital rape. Controversially, changes were not debated before the law was passed, and the recommendations of a government-approved panel not taken into account. Although Finance Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram has promised that the law will be reviewed, its first incarnation (which allows for the death penalty in some instances) is arguably a knee-jerk reaction, rushed through to prove that the Delhi student’s case is being taken seriously. But such gestures are meaningless if they serve only as quick fixes and change little in the long run. A pertinent question is why politicians, so indignant over this case, failed to tackle the problem beforehand. Concerns persist that politicians’ promises to strengthen rape laws and to speed up prosecutions are insincere and driven only by a desire to protect India’s international image, particularly considering six elected state legislators have charges of rape against their names.
A growing economic force in today’s world, India is not a cruel place for all women. Some enjoy great power and status, with a growing number occupying high-profile positions in politics, business and sport. Many young, emboldened women are now going out to work. But India’s society overwhelmingly remains feudal and patriarchal. Some hope that the outrage over the Delhi student’s rape and death may change this, and they claim to identify a new dialogue emerging which encourages men to respect women. It remains to be seen, however, if any changes in attitude will be permanent or if they will similarly disappear after the dust has settled. Indian attitudes towards rape and the general treatment of women must change sufficiently so that justice is from now on delivered to all women, not just those whose cases catch the media’s attention or those who hail from outside the country. This is the least they deserve.