India

Is India's Culture Of Rape Finally Changing?

Seven months after a student was brutally gang-raped and killed on a public bus in New Delhi, India has new legislation and an established women's movement -- but is it enough?

Students protesting the rising violence against women in Dec. 2012
Students protesting the rising violence against women in Dec. 2012
Frédéric Bobin

NEW DELHI - As gang members accused of brutally raping and killing a 23-year-old student on a public bus here last December await their post-trial fate, India is reflecting on the tragedy that drew tens of thousands people into the streets.

Never before had the country experienced such a movement to end violence against women. Has this tragic event marked a turning point in societal evolution? Has it moved the national conscience enough to impose a new understanding of women's rights? Or was it just a flash in the pan caused by unprecedented media coverage?

In New Delhi, women activists are cautiously optimistic. “We were concerned the interest might vanish quickly, but they still talk about it at school, at university and in the media,” says Urvashi Butalia, founder of the feminist publishing house Zubaan. “It is improving, though we hoped for much more.”

Vrinda Grover, a lawyer and feminist activist, adds: “This tragedy broke the silence on the rapes and sexual harassment Indian women are victims of.”

Mass mobilization last December led to a significant achievement — a new law, passed in March, reinforcing criminal penalties for perpetrators of sexual violence. A rapist now risks a minimum of 20 years imprisonment, and up to a life sentence or even the death penalty in cases when a victim dies or when the rapist is guilty of repeat offenses. And so far, the new penalties have teeth. The six men who gang-raped a Swiss tourist four months ago in the Central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh were sentenced to life in prison on July 20.

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Going in the right direction? Photo: Rafiq Sarlie

The new law is largely inspired by the report of an expert commission led by Judge Jagdish Sharan Verma, whose recommendations received overwhelming approval in India. The document denounces “gender discrimination” and “the state of mind of society” and calls for “systemic changes in education and social behaviors.”

As Grover puts it, “The Verma report explicitly says what women associations have been stating for years. It is the first time an official report relies on these theses.”

An ambiguous reality

Statistics aren't clear about whether the public debate and the new legislation have helped curb sex crimes in India. During the first six months of the year, the number of rape complaints registered in New Delhi (806) doubled compared to 2012. It's impossible to know whether this means these crimes are on the rise despite December's social movement — or whether more victims are simply reporting attacks now thanks to the social movement.

There aren't reliable statistics for past years, so the first hypothesis is difficult to argue one way or another. But many say it's indisputable that victims now feel more comfortable reporting rapes. “They got rid of the weight of guilt that paralyzed them before,” Grover says. Butalia adds: “The growth means women hope to receive the system’s attention and justice. And this is new.”

After December’s rape, some conservative politicians — invariably men — tried to make the debate about security. In short, they defended women’s right to be better “protected,” which sounded more like patriarchal condescension than true concern for women.

But attendance levels at self-defense and martial arts clubs in fact increased, showing a desire among women to ensure their “protection” themselves. Six months later, the impetus has lost some strength but is still powerful. “The number of women who come to our club is higher than in 2012, though the popularity has waned some since the beginning of the year,” says the owner of a martial arts club near New Delhi.

Unfortunately, the kinds of positive cultural changes that have been obvious in the capital don't necessarily reach the hinterlands of a continent-like country with 1.2 billion citizens, many of them poor. Sexual violence in India is linked to social hierarchy, so that rape is often a way to establish and exert power and control. “Rapes of untouchable women — the lowest class in the social-religious Hindu order — are still a systemic problem in our country,” Grover says.

The bitter irony is that the anonymity of the New Delhi student may have been decisive in the media coverage of her martyrdom. “Everyone could identify with this dying girl,” Grover recalls. “As she did not belong to any community or caste, people could tell themselves: ‘she could be our daughter’.”

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