December 16 marks the anniversary of the gang rape of a young student in New Delhi, an event that shook India and the world. The brutality of the crime was so shocking that it galvanized national and international media attention, sparking a debate in India and elsewhere about the routine and daily nature of violence against women.
The young woman eventually succumbed to her injuries at a hospital in Singapore. Such was the public outcry that the government struck a commission headed by a former supreme court justice which led to the speedy enactment of a stringent new anti-rape law in the Indian penal code, as well as the creation of fast-track courts to expedite cases such as these. Indeed, the adults accused in the case (except for one who committed suicide in jail) were quickly tried, convicted and sentenced to death within 9 months of the crime, which is remarkably quick by the standards of the creaky Indian criminal justice system. They’re currently on death row. The one juvenile convicted was sent to a remand home.
A year after these events, where do we stand on the safety of women in India?
Despite the uproar caused by the gang rape and the new law, reported crimes against women are actually way up in New Delhi this year. As compared to 706 rape incidents last year, the total as of the end of this October had already reached 1,330. The statistics for molestation and other crimes against women tell a similar tale. Part of this may reflect better reporting, but it’s implausible that such a large increase could be accounted for only by more stringent policing, and probably does reflect a significant increase in incidents.
Why violence against women continues to increase in the capital despite increased scrutiny and a tough new law should be a major cause of alarm.
At roughly the same time as the sentence was being handed out in the Delhi case, a young female photojournalist was gang raped in Mumbai by a group of assailants who evidently had no fear of being caught and punished despite the tough new law. For those perpetrating violence against women, it was business as usual. As it happens, the alleged accused were quickly arrested and their case is still going through the courts.
A day after the New Delhi gang rape, on Dec. 17, 2012, a three-year-old girl was allegedly raped in the bathroom of her preschool by the 40-year-old husband of the woman who runs the place. A Bloomberg report highlighted the tragic aftermath. The alleged victim’s father approached the police, hoping for speedy justice in the wake of all the discussion around the gang rape. Instead, the family have allegedly been intimidated by the presumed perpetrator and have had to move homes; the father has lost his job and the child is still awaiting justice a year later.
It would appear that increased media attention on women’s issues hasn’t translated into improved outcomes for many ordinary women living in the countryside and on the margins of the big cities.
It’s striking that while the Indian media is rightly praised for bringing increased attention to women’s issues, most of the discussion on women’s rights, the status of women, and crimes against women seems to be confined to educated English-speaking upper-middle and upper-class urban dwellers. Indeed, most TV panel discussions and commentary pieces in the newspapers about women’s issues tend to be populated only by celebrity women such as actors, social activists and socialites, rather than drawing in ordinary people whose experience is no doubt very different than that of these celebrities.
Some might see it as a hopeful sign that women’s issues figured in the recently contested election campaign in the New Delhi state assembly. All major parties said they supported a “Womanifesto” put forward by activists calling for all parties to agree to a common minimum program to improve women’s safety in New Delhi. Internal polls by some of the parties contesting the elections suggested that women’s issues resonated with voters. Yet there’s no way to know whether this played a role in how people voted. The crushing defeat of the incumbent Congress government likely has more to do with public disgust at major corruption scams and rising prices for basic essentials.
More to the point, there’s little if any evidence that anything much has changed for women in India. Apart from a few high-profile cases that get attention in the media and might be fast-tracked through the courts, vast numbers of women in India every day suffer molestation, humiliation and sexual assault. As I write this, a Dalit woman or child in a small Indian town or village is almost certainly being raped. And every day, millions of Indian women – including me – have to face down knots of leering men who taunt them as they go about their daily business.
As I see it, real change won’t occur until there’s a fundamental shift in attitudes among both men and women. That chauvinism and misogyny are rife among Indian men is no secret. What’s more shocking is how many women seem to rationalize or justify violence against other women. After the Mumbai gang rape of the photojournalist, a New York Times reporter interviewed the mother of one of the alleged assailants. While acknowledging that her son probably did what he was accused of, she turned the blame around, asking why the victim was in the desolate place wearing such skimpy clothes.
The battle for women’s rights in the world’s largest democracy has only just started.
Rupa Subramanya, a Mumbai-based economist, is co-author of Indianomix: Making Sense of Modern India. Follow her on Twitter @rupasubramanya.