The gang rape and subsequent death of a young medical student seven months ago united India in outrage and brought promises from the country’s leaders to curb attacks on women. That hasn’t made New Delhi any safer.
On the eve of the first verdict in the trials of five men charged with the allegedly drunken December assault aboard a bus in the capital, the outpouring of emotion has faded. The number of rapes reported in the capital has more than doubled, according to police. While there may be a greater willingness to record such crimes before potentially hostile authorities, the jump also reflects entrenched sexual violence.
“Women in India just aren’t safe,” said Shreya Sharma, 20, near the spot where the Dec. 16 assault ended with the naked and beaten student and the male friend who accompanied her to the cinema being dumped by the roadside. “I’m careful not to be out late at night.”
Preliminary police reports reveal the predatory nature of assaults within the last month: Two women raped over 90 minutes by as many as seven men after hiring a car outside a mall on the city’s outskirts; a woman abducted along with her two-year-old son and gang raped in a moving car; three truck drivers accused of raping a 13-year-old deaf-mute girl near her home.
Against that backdrop, a magistrate at the Juvenile Justice Board in New Delhi is tomorrow scheduled to release his judgment on one of the bus-rape defendants, who was under 18 at the time of the attack and can’t be named. A separate trial of four adult men is expected to end in about a month. A fifth man, Ram Singh, committed suicide in jail in March, according to an official inquiry.
While the verdicts will address demands for swift justice, the fight for security and equality for women is inching forward, said Indu Agnihotri, director of the Centre for Women’s Development Studies in the capital.
“We are not back to square one,” she said yesterday. “But many of the demands that the women’s movement was making before the attack are unmet -- fair treatment from the justice system and the accountability of police.”
If found guilty, the juvenile faces a maximum three-year jail sentence, a punishment criticized by some lawmakers as unduly lenient. India’s top court agreed yesterday to hear a petition from the leader of the Janata Party, Subramanian Swamy, that seeks fresh interpretation of laws on criminal responsibility so longer sentences can be considered for people under the age of 18.
Even in a country accustomed to violence against women, the death of the 23-year-old student -- whose name can’t be published under laws forbidding the identification of rape victims -- triggered a furious response.
Her life story -- a journey from small town India to the big city in search of an education and opportunity -- resonated with millions seeking to break down barriers to social progress and escape gender roles that contribute to a third of the country’s women being unable to read or write and the most child marriages in the world.
Protests and vigils followed, while politicians promised action. Official New Year celebrations were scaled back. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh addressed the woman’s family as he called for introspection.
“I want to tell them 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,” Singh said.
The government toughened laws on sexual assault, criminalizing stalking and voyeurism, and allowing for capital punishment if an attack leaves the victim in a vegetative state.
Delhi police announced plans for a desk staffed by female officers at each station to encourage women to report assaults. It became a criminal offense for police to fail to register a rape claim, a frequent complaint.
The city reports more than double the rapes of second-ranked Mumbai, and sexual assaults jumped more than 47 percent in the last five years, according to police.
In the first six months of 2013, reported rapes in New Delhi soared to 806 from 330 in the same period a year earlier, according to Deepak Mishra, special commissioner of the police force. Molestation cases rose six-fold to 1,780.
“Our response systems have improved and if that has led to increased registration, we don’t mind,” Neeraj Kumar, Delhi police commissioner, told the CNN-IBN television channel July 22. “Offenders are being brought” to justice, he said.
More women have a greater awareness of their rights, said Jyotsna Chatterjee, director of the Joint Women’s Programme, a New Delhi advocacy group. Still, “the mindset of society has not really changed,” she said, and a battle must be fought in “every home.”
Chauvinism runs deep. Lawmakers participating in a March debate in parliament blamed attacks on reality television, mixed-sex schooling and erotic cultural statues.
“You’re saying girls shouldn’t be followed,” Sharad Yadav, a leader of the fifth largest political party Janata Dal (United), said. “Who among us has not followed girls? When you want to talk to a woman, she doesn’t give you a chance at first. For that, you have to put in a lot of effort.”
Anisha Kumar, a 29-year-old teacher who joined protests after the December attack, said her optimism that it would mark a turning point has evaporated. Every day men harass her and make jokes laced with sexual innuendo, she said. She dresses conservatively and doesn’t travel at night.
“I’m not an isolated case,” Kumar said as she shopped in New Delhi. “This is the story of every Indian woman.”