After a Fatal Rape, Paths to Change

New York Times Weekly

January 24, 2013

NEW DELHI — Crowds converged in Delhi last month to protest the gang rape and killing of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student that shocked India and ignited outrage. At a demonstration on December 29, men chanted “Hang the Rapist, We Want Justice.” A young woman’s sign read: “Words Are Trapped in My Heart; The Whole Country Has Stopped.” A placard held aloft by an older man stood out: “This is the First Time I’ve Felt Hopeful in a Very Long Time.”

Hope was an unusual sentiment amid the outpouring of rage and grief in India. The victim had died earlier that morning, nearly two weeks after she was assaulted with a metal rod and six attackers raped her on a bus driving through the capital, according to police.

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Sexual violence against women in India is endemic: sitting politicians have rape charges against them, and molestation and rape within families is a hushed but familiar violation. The tens of thousands who took to the streets of Delhi decried government and police inaction and demanded safety for women. Sonia Gandhi, president of India’s ruling Congress party, pledged that the people’s voice had been heard.

There is an ingrained cynicism that India won’t change, but as trials for the accused rapists begin, discussions about stamping out sexual violence are still roiling. Recommendations could fill a book, but legal, police and social reforms are all necessary for real progress.

A placard at a protest in Delhi after the brutal gang rape of a 23-year-old reads, 'This is the most hopeful I've felt in a very long time''

A sign at a protest in Delhi after the brutal gang rape of a 23-year-old reads, ‘This is the most hopeful I’ve felt in a very long time”

This could be a pivotal time, ahead of India’s general elections next year. Women’s safety is not normally an election issue, but why shouldn’t it be when it affects half the population? India also unveils its annual budget next month, a chance for the “people’s voice” to demand funding to implement reforms.

Violence against women is an insidious global problem. In the United States there were 27.3 reported rape cases per 100,000 people in 2010, compared to 1.8 in India, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, although India’s numbers are believed to be vastly underreported. Sweden and Mexico counted 63.5 and 13.2 per 100,000 respectively.

Now that the spotlight is on India, perhaps other countries can learn from its collective soul-searching.

India suffers from a huge backlog of cases because of bureaucracy and a shortage of judges. Of the 95,000 pending rape cases in 2011, only 15 percent made it to trial, according to the National Crime Records Bureau.

A fast-track court was created for the trials of the alleged attackers in the Delhi rape case. Having more of these courts would help, but India must fund the judiciary and appoint more judges, said Colin Gonsalves, director of Human Rights Law Network in Delhi. India’s law commission in 2008 recommended increasing the number of judges from 14 per million people to 50, but there has been no significant rise. Kirti Singh, a former member of India’s law commission, said there should be a three-month time limit for rape trials in fast track courts.

New laws in India can take up to a decade to implement, like the 2005 domestic violence act. It was a landmark given that “cruelty by husband or relatives” was the most reported crime against women in 2011, according to the government. Amendments to laws can be carried out in as little as a year.

Police in Delhi suggested current laws on sexual assault be amended to make it a non-bailable offense with seven years imprisonment instead of three, said a 2011 U.N. report on women.

But without police enforcement, laws are meaningless. An assessment last year of the domestic violence act found that in spite of increased training, police continue to discourage victims from filing reports. There are even existing police programs that go unenforced. A 2005 Delhi police program called Parivartan (Hindi for “change”) aimed to address a spike in rapes by raising awareness in communities and among the police, and by deploying female officers. But funding for the program lapsed in 2010 after budgetary constraints and minimal resources were set aside for it, according to The Economic Times.

A common complaint among Indian women is that police don’t take sexual violence seriously, pressing women to drop cases or humiliating them. Alarmingly, there is no effective system to lodge grievances against the police, other than state human rights commissions, which usually lack the means for independent investigations, said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of Human Rights Watch.

To create transparency, KTS Tulsi, senior counsel in India’s Supreme Court, suggested recording phone calls to the police, video recording statements and filing complaints online. However, all this relies on funding and staffing to implement it.

Gonsalves had a tougher solution: purge the police. “Thousands of educated young people would be willing to take those jobs.” But that is difficult task, and he has little faith in politicians. “India is a nation of t

alkers. Our politicians just don’t have the guts to do what needs to be done.”

Changing attitudes about victims of sexual violence is an enormous challenge. The 28-year-old male friend of the victim, who was also attacked, said, “In our society, we try to hide such things,” and he resolved to “carry on this fight with her name.”

Protests and candles in tribute to the woman who galvanized India are just the start. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh laid down the challenge when he said: It is “up to us all to ensure that her death will not have been in vain.”

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