Conflict & Justice

The year Indian women became visible


Indian students take part in a candle-light vigil commemorating the December 2012 fatal gang-rape of an Indian woman, in New Delhi on December 16, 2013. The fatal gang-rape of a student on a bus in New Delhi shattered India's silence over sexual violence and emboldened victims to speak out, family members and campaigners said on the first anniversary of the attack.



The brutality of last year’s gang-rape in Delhi was hard to ignore: a 23-year old physiology student was lured onto a public bus by six men who raped her so savagely, at times with a metal pole, that she died of her injuries five days later.

The news of the rape quickly captured the media’s attention; it tapped into a latent anger in India, spurring thousands to take to the streets to protest the treatment of women in their country. These events have highlighted the wider problem of rape in India, giving Indian women and their everyday struggles with sexual violence unprecedented visibility.

After the Delhi rape and the ensuing protests, the Indian government reacted quickly to toughen laws on sexual offenses. In March, it passed landmark legislation broadening the definition of rape, identifying stalking, acid attacks, sexual harassment and voyeurism as crimes and imposing harsher punishments on sexual offenses.

These reforms are important because they send the message that the Indian government considers sexual violence a serious violation, but their effectiveness will depend on how well they are implemented. So far, real change has been slow to come because India’s criminal justice system is too inefficient and overburdened to adequately enforce the new laws and procedures.

The public outcry surrounding the Delhi case spurred India’s top officials into action, resulting in a quick resolution to the case.

Within days, the police arrested the six accused rapists and the courts imposed the harshest possible punishments on them eight months later. However, statistics indicate that out of 706 cases reported in Delhi in 2012, this was the only one that resulted in a conviction.

In cases that are not so heavily scrutinized by the media, India has a poor track record of convicting rapists. Shubhranshu Choudhary, who trains citizen journalists in rural India through his organization CGNet Swara, says that there has been no public outrage and little police intervention when women in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh have experienced similarly horrific rapes.

“In India, men rape because it’s a manly thing to subjugate the weaker sex,” psychiatrist Purnima Nagaraja told the Washington Post. “Our culture puts so much emphasis on ‘being a man,’ which creates huge in­securities for men as they see women’s status rising in society.”

Over the last ten years, the number of reported rapes nationally has marginally gone up from 16,075 in 2001 to 24,923 in 2012. Some have described this increase as alarming proof that rape is on the rise in India. However, these statistics do not measure the prevalence of rape but rather how frequently rape is reported. And there is reason to think women in India are less likely to report the assault than women in other countries.

India’s reported rate of two rapes per 100,000 people is far lower than the rates reported in many other countries.

But India is not the only country struggling to accurately record rape. Criminologists consider unreported rape a “dark figure” that renders rape statistics unreliable.

There are many reasons that women choose not to report rape. While rape victims often feel shame after an attack and fear they will be blamed for inciting the rape, in India this problem is made worse because the specter of rape is a source of embarrassment not only to the victim but to her entire family. In a widely publicized case in 2012, a father committed suicide after his daughter was gang-raped because the perpetrators threatened to humiliate his family by discussing the rape publicly.

The Indian government has been accused of undercounting rape, contributing another source of bias to the available statistics. For instance, cases in which a woman dies as a result of a sexual attack—such as the Delhi gang-rape—are recorded as murder and left out of the rape figure altogether. R. Rajasekaran, deputy director of India’s National Crime Records Bureau says his organization is working to improve rape data by including new categories like “rape and murder” and “attempt to rape,” but has not specified when these changes will be implemented. There has also been discussion about incorporating victimization surveys into official crime data to provide a more robust understanding of rape in India.

With the new reforms, the government is trying to improve rape reporting procedures to encourage more women to turn to the police when confronted with sexual violence. However, this will be an uphill battle because many women perceive the police system to be hostile and unsympathetic to them.

There have been cases of the police themselves committing rape. It is also common for the police to encourage victims to make peace with their rapists, or even marry them. To address the concern that women might be treated with insensitivity by male officers, the new legislation requires all initial reports of sexual crimes to be taken by female officers. Activists say that many women are still not aware of these new rules and procedures.

Carl Gierstorfer, a filmmaker who has recently made a documentary about India’s skewed sex ratio, said, “There is now a social strata of urban, educated women who know what is going on and are just fed up. But that’s a tiny veneer of total Indian society: if you go into some villages, they have never heard of the Delhi rape.”

Aditya Vashistha, a researcher at the University of Washington who works on technologies for marginalized communities, says the amended laws are often beyond the reach of low-literate, low income, at-risk women. He recommends that the government and NGOs rely on technological solutions to create awareness across all demographics.

For women who do decide to report sexual violence to the police, very few see justice. Only 24 percent of rape trials in 2012 ended in a conviction; the remaining 76 percent ended in acquittal for the accused. Indeed, the conviction rates have declined every year (in 2001, for example, 41 percent of rapes ended in conviction).

Experts say this declining conviction rate is a product of India’s inefficient courts system, which is struggling to cope with the volume of cases that pour in every year. Judges often take between three and four years to reach a verdict, giving suspects’ families the time to intimidate victims into dropping the charge or to buy witnesses off. These extended waiting times can be traumatic for rape survivors and can cause witnesses to lose track of their court appearance dates, thereby increasing the probability of suspects’ acquittal.

Last January, shortly after the Delhi gang-rape, the government cleared the dockets of six judges, devoting their time exclusively to rape trial hearings. These “fast track” courts were designed to expedite rape trials, but some have argued that they have an even slower rate of disposal than regular courts because they have been saddled with thousands of rape cases that would previously have been divided among 70 judges. Moreover, these courts have not resulted in a significantly higher conviction rate. Between January and June this year, only 32 percent of cases resulted in a conviction.

All the evidence suggests that the Indian government is struggling to enforce the new laws and procedures meant to curb sexual violence, but these reforms nonetheless signal progress for India’s women. Perhaps more importantly, institutional changes have been accompanied by a cultural shift in India, as women’s rights have become a part of the national discourse.

After the Delhi rape, the Indian media began to document many other stories of sexual violence from around the country. Rape coverage flooded the newspapers, serving as a daily reminder of how vast India’s rape crisis has become. The heightened awareness and the ongoing conversation about rape may be the most important tools for tackling the problem: the past year has shown that continued public pressure may be the most effective way to ensure the government will make women’s rights a priority.

Elizabeth Segran is an independent journalist based in Cambridge, Ma. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley in South and Southeast Asian studies with an emphasis in women, gender and sexuality. @LizSegran