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Within days of the brutal gang rape of Jyoti Singh on 16th December 2012, thousands of women and men had taken to the streets of New Delhi and marched in an expression of anger and shock at the perpetrators of the attack and the circumstances under which it had taken place. Not a week later, cities across India were flooded with millions of people protesting against the cultural and structural inequalities deeply embedded within Indian society, that politically, socially and sexually repress women, and that ultimately led to the terrible fate of Jyoti Singh. What began as a localised reaction to a single act of barbarity had morphed into a nation-wide demonstration of defiance, and a demand for structural reform and genuine progress in the face of normalised, state sanctioned gender-based violence (GBV).
A month of protests following the Delhi bus gang rape were consistently, and in many cases violently, cracked down upon by police and security forces. Eventually however, the Indian Government could no longer ignore the cries for change and publically announced plans to implement reforms in an attempt to reduce and address the problem of rape and sexual violence against women. The Justice Verma Committee, a three member commission headed by the late Chief Justice Verma, was hence set up to recommend legal reforms and other methods to address sexual violence. Later they announced new legal proposals that would criminalise various acts related to sexual violence and harassment that had previously been legal. These included;
- Voyeurism (spying on naked women, photographing without consent with intent to distribute photos etc.)
- Acid violence
- An expansion of the definition of rape stating the absence of a physical struggle does not equal consent
- More general criminalisation of harassment such as stalking
The Committee also provided recommendations for legal reform, including more severe punishments and harsher sentencing for those found guilty of rape;
- A mandatory minimum sentence of 7 years to life imprisonment for rape, depending on the circumstances e.g. gang rape or rape resulting in death
- Punishment of up to 7 years for voyeurism, stalking and acid attacks
- Punishment of 7-10 years imprisonment for trafficking
- Compulsory registration by police and civil society groups of complaints of rape, and compulsory implementation of medical examinations for victims
- A Bill of Rights for Women
- Police reforms to ensure public confidence and to criminalise inaction
- Introduction of fast track courts to reduce delays in hearing rape cases
Please see Justice Verma Committee report for more details
Have things improved?
Despite the swift and effective investigation by police during the weeks following the Delhi bus gang rape that led to the arrest of all six perpetrators, some argue that this is still the exception and not the norm. Part of the new government push to combat sexual violence in response to the incident in 2012 was to increase security patrols and inspections in public spaces such as bus shelters and parks. Two years on however, 91 per cent of women surveyed in a Delhi gang rape anniversary poll published by the Hindustan Times newspaper believed that there had been no improvements to safety, and that increased police presence in public spaces was virtually non-existent. Despite the current administration under Prime Minister Narendra Modi prioritising the issue of sexual violence as part of its campaign, many women still report dehumanizing treatment, disinterest and inaction from authorities and medical staff. A woman called Jagjit Kaur, who camps out in Delhi every night in protest against sexual violence and ill-treatment of women, claims that she was raped by police in her home village in Pujab but that no one will acknowledge her claim. It is now a requirement by law in India that a police report is filed when a woman alleges rape, but authorities refuse to register her case.
Since the Delhi bus gang rape there have been several prominent cases of rape and gang rape in India that have received national and international attention. Last year two Dalit girls, aged 14 and 15, were abducted, gang raped and then hanged from a tree in a village in Uttar Pradesh. Family members claim that the first thing the police asked when they made contact with them was which caste they belonged to, and that when they told them they were Dalits, the police humiliated them and refused to help. After five months of investigation the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) concluded that the girls were not raped and that they had in fact committed suicide, even though three men had confessed to raping and killing the girls after being arrested and questioned by local police. The families and rights groups have accused the CBI of falsifying evidence in order to protect the accused, whom are from a higher caste within the state, and continue to appeal the decision. In another incident a few weeks ago, a tribal woman from Madhya Pradesh, suspected of witchcraft, was gang raped by six men. They have been arrested and an investigation is underway.
Although there have still been several reported cases of brutal rapes taking place in India since December 2012, the focus and attention that they have received could be considered as a sign of progress. Whilst it is known that sexual violence has been a hugely prevalent issue in India for many years, the nation- wide response to Delhi gang rape seems to have triggered a new founded resilience within Indian society, where rape cases receive greater attention and sexual violence is more frequently reported. According to data from the National Crime Records Bureau, the reporting of rape and sexual assault increased significantly in several states and cities across India between 2012 and 2013, with New Delhi seeing an increase of over 60 per cent. Additionally, several Indian cities have recently seen the introduction of ATM like machines in private booths that allow women to report crimes anonymously without having to go to the police, as many face harassment and humiliation in doing so. Although there has been little in the way of feedback on the effectiveness of the machines, advocates and rights groups are optimistic about how they will help protect women.
The situation for some women in India has improved but not, they argue, because of government action or improving attitudes of men. Dipti Shankur took up self-defence after being harassed on several occasions by men, and is now a full time instructor. She believes that the way men look at women hasn’t improved, but that the real change is coming from a shift in women’s self-perception and their desire to be empowered. Similarly a woman called Shanti, who had previously been in an abusive relationship, has become one of the top drivers in a women’s only taxi company called Sakha Consulting Wings. The taxi company ensures women arrive safely at their destination, and provides freedom and security for female employees who would have previously had to rely on public transport, and spend more time in public spaces where there is greater risk of harassment or attack.
Despite significant public outcry and unprecedented governmental action in the face of the Delhi gang rape, it is clear that the threat of sexual violence and rape for women and girls across India is still a huge problem and one that is unlikely to be resolved in the near future. Although horribly brutal cases of sexual violence are still widespread, increased media attention and public response to these incidents are definitely a sign of progress in the country’s general perception of these issues. Increased reporting of incidents also indicates that more women are finding the confidence to speak up about what has happened to them, where they might not have had the confidence to before.
The fact remains though that violence against women is a problem deeply entrenched within Indian society and culture that can only be prevented and addressed through education and empowerment, and a gradual generational shift in men’s attitudes towards women. Dipti Shankur says that if she can bring up her two sons to be ‘defenders and not molesters’, she will have done her bit for society. This is what women and men need to do across the entire country in order to ensure the protection of women and girls and to see genuine change in the future.
Disclaimer: This blog is a space for discussion and personal reflection. Any opinions expressed within the blog are those of the author and are not necessarily held by HART. Individual authors are responsible for the accuracy of statements made within the blog.