In retrospect, it wasn’t that unusual of an event but would be one that finally broke the silence surrounding violence against women in the world’s second largest country.
On December 16, a 23-year-old medical student travelling with a male companion on a bus in New Delhi was beaten and gang raped by a group of 6 men for over an hour as the bus traveled across the city. When they were done, they threw her from the bus onto the road leaving her in critical condition. On December 30, she died from her injuries in a Singapore hospital, leaving a country to grapple with an entrenched political and social culture that does little to prevent other women from suffering the same fate.
That is because this incident is increasingly common in India. Less than two weeks after this rape, a 17 year old girl committed suicide after receiving police pressure to marry one of her attackers after she was gang raped in November. In 2011, a 16 year old Dalit girl was gang raped by 8 men who then circulated pictures of the crime throughout her village. In that case, none of the men involved were arrested for their crime but the girl’s father eventually committed suicide out of shame. Just a few days ago, a 15 year old Dalit girl was “released” by 3 men that kidnapped and raped her while holding her hostage for 15 days. This is just a small offering of the thousands of cases that occur throughout the country. Far from media headlines, women suffer the consequences of violence and sexual harassment every day in India. According to government figures, 228,650 of the 256,329 violent crimes committed in India last year were committed against women, a rate of nearly 90%. And those are only the crimes that are officially reported and logged by police, meaning the total number is likely much higher.
The culture of violence against women is so prevalent that it begins even before birth. India has one of the worst imbalances of women to men, currently standing at 914 women to every 1000 men. The imbalance is the result of gender-selective abortions called femicides where parents determine the baby’s gender via ultrasound and then terminate the pregnancy if the baby is a girl. In a country where sons bring prestige and money while daughters are viewed as a burden with their dowries and low income prospects, rather than work to change the gender inequalities that fuel this system, expecting parents from the affluent neighborhoods of Mumbai and New Delhi to the poor rural communities in the countryside turn to femicide to ensure that only sons will be added to their family. The resulting imbalance encourages trafficking and abuse, making things even worse for those girls who are born. Looking at the daily struggles women face throughout the country, it is no wonder that earlier this year India was voted as the worst place for women among the G20 by gender specialists, even beating out Saudi Arabia for the top spot.
Against this backdrop, it would seem unlikely that another rape would change the general code of silence against violence against women. But the attack in New Delhi ignited protests throughout the country and calls for reform of police attitudes towards sexual crimes. The protests, ranging from candlelight vigils to violent confrontations with police, all share the same anger and frustration towards the nation’s politicians and security sector for their refusal to take the safety of women seriously, time and time again. Even after protests broke out, the government was slow in their response, appearing unsure of how to handle the protesters’ complaints or really understanding why they were protesting. The entrenchment of this paternalistic view was seen just says after the protests started when the Association for Democratic Reform, an Indian think tank, released a new report detailing hundreds of politicians standing for elections that have been accused of sexual violence, including formal charges of rape. As Raj M. Desai and Shareen Joshi of the Brookings Institute noted, the protests are just as much about bad governance and rising crime rates as they are about the persistent gender inequality that defines most aspects of life in India.
But the persistence of gender inequality is what makes real progress in this area so difficult. Several NGOs such as the Centre for Social Research and Smile Foundation work on empowering girls and women and addressing the key issues that affect them. Not surprisingly, personal security is a major concern of many Indian women but it is far from the only one. Human trafficking, forced labor, forced marriages and rampant discrimination are daily realities for millions of women across the country. There are many suggestions for why this is the case – economic inequality, conservative cultural constraints, envy, greed, or just plainly too many people with too little opportunity. Regardless, with such an entrenched culture of inequality in a country of more than a billion people, any action seems small in light of the daunting task of progressive change.
However, what the recent protests in India demonstrate though is that change is necessary. Violence against women is always a public health issue, but in India it is clear that the inequality that underlines such violence is also a drag on economic growth and development, two things India needs. In the wake of the New Delhi gang rape, the culture of silence around the issue of violence against women may have been broken, but whether this most recent tragedy will mark a true wake-up call for the Indian elite remains to be seen. One hopes that it will, not just so a woman’s brutal death can mean something but also because without real change the lives of millions of women will continue to be defined by suffering for their birth in the world’s largest democracy as the rest of Indian society will continue to suffer the social and economic consequences of inaction.
Originally published on December 31, 2012 at www.foreignpolicyblogs.com