Lifestyle & Belief

A year after the Delhi gang rape, what's changed?


The parent of a girl who was gang-raped by six men in Haryana sits for an interview at The KD Singh Foundation in New Delhi, Dec. 9, 2013.


Sajjad Hussain

DELHI, India — On Dec. 16 last year, a young Indian woman and her male companion got onto a bus in this sprawling city, on the way home from a theater where they had seen "The Life of Pi."

She was a physiotherapy intern, whose father sold his farm land to pay for her education. He was a software engineer. But their aspirations were irrelevant to the men on the bus, who beat the two of them and gang raped her as the bus sped through the city. They eventually dumped the pair on the side of the road like human detritus and attempted, unsuccessfully, to run her over.

Rape is alarmingly common in India, and often goes unreported given that the woman usually bears the brunt of the blame.

This crime was different.

The brutality of the attack shocked the world, and the rape victim’s story — as a modern, upwardly mobile urbanite — elicited empathy.

The outrage was unprecedented. As the woman lay in the hospital for 13 days dying, many thousands of middle-class Indians held vigils in the streets, demanding justice — not just for the victim, but for the millions of Indian women routinely forced to suffer such violation in silence.

For India, it seemed like a watershed moment, an opportunity for women to finally achieve the dignity, respect and security that they deserve.

But one year later many in India are asking, has anything changed?

Unfortunately it is difficult to argue the Delhi rape case has led to sweeping improvements on the issue of sexual violence and the treatment of women.

Unsurprisingly, rape reporting has increased significantly. Sexual assaults are now highlighted on a daily basis by the Indian media to serve as a reminder of how common violence against women is.

This, of course, does not mean that the incidence of rape has actually increased. Rather, women feel empowered to report their cases. While this is an encouraging first step, it also poses a major problem: Many — if not most — have been lured into a false sense of security, believing they will get justice.

Statistics suggest that their chances aren’t good. Of 706 rape cases filed in New Delhi last year, only one — the Delhi rape — ended in conviction, the Guardian reports.

Many believed the package of laws the Indian government rushed through in the months following the assault, which increased punishments for sexual assault and redefined a range of offenses, would bring the change people demanded.

The complete statistics for 2013 are not yet available, but as anyone who lives in India knows, passing legislation is very different from enforcing it.

After India bowed to public pressure and accelerated its inefficient judicial system and turned several courtrooms into a “fast-track” for rape trial hearings, people believed it would raise conviction rates and send a firm message to perpetrators of such heinous crimes.

People wrongly assumed that faster judgments meant more convictions.

India as a whole is just as corrupt as it was one year ago and so are those designated to uphold and enforce laws and regulations.

The recent comments of one of India’s most senior policemen, Ranjit Sinha, who heads the Central Bureau of Investigation, demonstrates again how little India has changed in the last year in respect to attitudes towards women.  

He caused outrage after he compared rape to unlicensed betting, which, if it cannot be prevented, should be enjoyed.

In India, patriarchal traditions prevail. Men are much more highly valued than women. That has hardly budged: In the immediate aftermath of the Delhi rape, lawmakers declined to criminalize marital rape. Misogynistic attitudes will take generations to evolve. Indian society has long sought to teach women how not to get raped, rather than teaching men not to rape. Change won’t come until that equation is reversed.  

The Delhi rape outraged the public not only because of its singular brutality, but also because of the profile of the victim. In a society tainted by caste and class, she was educated and urban, aspiring toward a career.  

That led her to be represented and viewed in a way that other victims had not been before. For the millions of Indians who’ve benefited from economic growth and come to expect something more from life, she could have been a sister, a daughter or a friend.  It was this sense of shared identity that led the masses to the streets to demand safety and accountability.

But for whom exactly?

For the poor women and children living in squalor on the streets? No, safer for the growing middle class which is desperate to be accepted, desperate to overcome its inferiority complex.

What about the women in rural India who are subjected to horrific crimes on a daily basis but whose cases never make headlines because they’re deemed not as important? Their chance at justice still appears to be remote.

Among the hysteria, most who anticipated huge changes have been grossly disappointed.  

However there are activists, such as Kavita Krishan, secretary of All India’s Progressive Women’s Movement (AIPWM), who believe the case had led to change.

“There is far greater openness in talking about sexual assault and there’s greater support for those who speak out,” she said.
“The ground has shifted but the government is still not giving people the change they want.”  

But for the time being, Delhi is still labeled the “rape capital of India” — and often of the world.

As India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, said: “You can tell the condition of a nation by looking at the status of its women.”

If that is the case, India has a long way to go.