The death following a brutal gang rape and assault of a 23-year-old paramedical student in India’s capital Delhi on December 16 has put a spotlight on crimes against women in the country.
Widespread protests and emotional outbursts spontaneously erupted across the country on Saturday, with women and men demanding safety and protection of women, a change in attitudes towards women and a change of archaic gender laws and speedy justice to bring rapists to book. Some protesters demand the death penalty for rapists.
"In India, rapists act with impunity as they know they can get away with their crime. Unless laws are strengthened to punish wrong-doers and justice is delivered speedily this crime will continue unchecked," said Geetha Ram, a women based in Bengaluru.
Crimes against women
The problem of gender-based violence is getting worse. National Crime Record Bureau statistics show crimes against women increased by 7.1 percent nationwide since 2010. There has been a rise in the number of incidents of rape recorded too. In 2011, 24,206 incidents were recorded, a rise of 9 percent from the previous year. More than half of the victims are between 18 and 30 years of age.
Figures indicate that 10.6 percent of total victims of rape were girls under 14 years of age, while 19 percent were teens between the ages of 14 and 18. Alarmingly in almost 94.2 percent of cases offenders were known to the victims and those involved included family members, relatives, and neighbours.
Under the IPC (Indian Penal Code) crimes against women include rape, kidnapping and abduction, homicide for dowry, torture, molestation, sexual harassment, and the importation of girls.
A total of 2,28,650 incidents of crimes against women were reported in the country during 2011. The north eastern city of Tripura recorded the highest rate of crimes against women at 37 percent, compared to the national crime rate of 18.9 percent.
Kidnapping and abductions are up by 19 percent and trafficking rose by 122 percent in the same period. Crimes that include the Indian term "eve-teasing" or harassment and heckling and sexual innuendoes against women in public places including streets, public transport, cinema halls, along with the rape of minors and women in tribal and villages often go unreported and unrecorded.
According to records, Madhya Pradesh, a state with a large population of tribes, has recorded 3406 rape cases, the highest number of incidents in the country in 2011.
India's profile as an emerging modern nation has taken a beating by the recent rape case, as widespread gender-based violence has been exposed.
Legal experts point out that many rapes go unreported. Due to "family honour" many complaint files are withdrawn and in many cases the police do not give a fair hearing. Medical evidence is often unrecorded making it easy for offenders to pass scot free under prevailing laws.
On Friday news of a 17-year-old rape victim who committed suicide was covered by the media. The victim and her parents were refused a proper hearing by police who refused to record the complaint and the harassment that followed in the name of investigation led to the girl taking her own life.
Outside of legal rooms it is not uncommon in India's interior villages and hamlets for local kangaroo courts to advise the woman to marry her rapist to "preserve her honour". In some cases, rape can be used to settle caste issues and local disputes.
Actor and activist Shabana Azmi said: "In the name of investigation the woman is verbally and mentally tortured all over again in this country."
The maximum sentence for a rapist found guilty remains unclear under prevailing laws. The maximum sentence includes seven years of life imprisonment, or up to ten years. For those guilty of gang-rape, rape of a pregnant woman and related offenses the maximum for the guilty is 10 years.
Even as lawmakers argue merits of the death sentence for rapists would bring down the number of rapes in the country, there are those who warn that it may lead to men killing women after rape to avoid death penalty. Protesters are demanding that the government amend its archaic rape laws.
The Indian government has appointed a three-member panel of legal experts to review the rape laws. Delhi, the capital city, has been called by many as the "rape capital of India".
The government has promised to step up and take vigilant and preventive measures including: night patrols, supervision and checks on public and private bus drivers and their assistants, and the banning of vehicles with tinted windows or curtains.
Delhi-based Moushumi Dutt said: "As a mother of a five-year old daughter I demand protection for women of all ages in this country and a tightening of laws for a safer tomorrow. Fear of male attack inside and outside homes must be erased."
To bring home the heinous nature of their crime, the government has also said that it will post the photos, names and addresses of convicted rapists on official websites.
The Delhi government has set a committee for speeding up trials of sexual assault cases on women. Another committee has been appointed to examine the lapses that led to the recent incident in the city.
A culture of patriarchy
While any reform or affirmative action is welcome according to analysts India's problem with rape has to do with deep rooted traditions of patriarchy, misogyny and repressive attitudes that prevail across classes.
The writer Rahul Roy in the blog Kafila explains, "Masculinities provide an ideological basis for impunity to be legitimised and practiced. And crime against women comes that much easier because to be truly masculine men have to carry both a fear and hatred of the feminine close to their heart."
While the reasons for rape in villages and tribal areas are attributed to caste, honour, family wars and repressive attitudes, India's big cities are also grappling with more women entering the public space, thanks to education or jobs and the influx of migrants from villages who come seeking work.
The conflict of accepting women entering bars or dressing in non traditional Indian clothing, making independent choices, and refusing male attention are all seen as threats and provocation that need to be contained in big cities in India, says Asavari Singh, a gender and media studies professional.
Alongside protests following the gang rape of the medical student, the agitations have led to many public debates in the media and elsewhere about how the government and policy makers should stop crimes against women.
"India’s societal changes have been engineered by women getting access to education and jobs. However on the ground regressive notions and crimes continue to halt women from getting out of their homes and joining the work force. This gory incident and the righteous outrage have laid bare the condition of Indian women, rich and poor before the world’s eyes," says Ishika Goon, 22, a law student based in Cuttack.
Activists argue that the rising number of women parliamentarians and the presence of many high profile women in India's political parties and public offices will remain only cosmetic if effective laws and mindsets are not altered to safeguard ordinary women.
"While our Western sisters burned bras in the 1960s for equality, India's women are now taking to the streets to demand their right to walk freely without fear from men," says Shweta Andrews, a researcher based in Delhi.