India Pledges $370 Million to Start Women’s Bank, Promote Safety

India’s government said it will create the country’s first bank exclusively for women, and set up a fund to boost female empowerment in honor of the victim of a brutal gang rape that reverberated around the world.

Finance Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram announced the state-owned bank will be provided with 10 billion rupees ($185 million) in initial capital and will mostly lend to women-run businesses and self-help groups. He said he plans to get a license for the lender by October. The proposed Nirbhaya Fund will also be given 10 billion rupees, with the Ministry of Women and Child Development given charge of assessing priorities.

“Recent incidents have cast a long, dark shadow on our liberal and progressive credentials,” Chidambaram said in his budget speech today. “We have a collective responsibility to ensure the dignity and safety of women.”

The murder and gang rape of a medical student on a moving bus in December shocked India, drawing attention to the scale of sexual violence in the world’s largest democracy. India was named the fourth worst place in the world to be a woman after Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Pakistan in a 2011 survey by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The survey cited female feticide, human trafficking, sexual violence and poor education for India’s low score in the global rankings.

Missing Women

Two of the most powerful women in Indian politics -- president of the ruling Congress party, Sonia Gandhi, and Sushma Swaraj, the leader in the lower house of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party -- banged their desks in praise after the program was announced.

Women make up just 24 percent of India’s workforce of 478 million people, according to a report last year called “India’s Economy: The Other Half” by the Center for Strategic and International Studies based in Washington. Among senior-level employees, women account for 5 percent, compared with a global average of 20 percent, the report said.

As more women enter public spaces for work or education they are facing increased violence, Chidambaram said. As a result he announced more money to be spent on improving their safety. Nirbhaya -- which means fearless in Hindi -- a pseudonym for the unidentified Delhi gang rape victim used by Indian media.

The gang rape set off a charged debate in a country where a woman was raped every 22 minutes in 2011, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. There were 572 cases of rape reported in New Delhi that year, a 23 percent increase from 2008. The rise may reflect a greater confidence in reporting assaults.

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