INDIA: How a Brutal Murder Finally Puts Sexual Violence on the Agenda

Monday, January 7, 2013
Women of the World
Southern Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

When news broke late last month about the death of a 23-year-old woman who died after succumbing to horrified injuries sustained from a brutal attack on a bus in New Delhi, there was horror expressed around the world.

And no more than in her own country, where her death has triggered immediate and continuous demonstrations, with women ready to fight for change in a country plagued by insidious and ingrained attitudes towards gender-based violence.

Several weeks on, hunger strikes and demands for changes to legislation for crimes against women continue in New Delhi. Protesters say that the government is not doing enough to protect Indian women, or to address the issues concerning women in public.

According to CNN, reported cases of sexual violence in India have surged over the past 40 years from 2,487 in 1971 to 24,206 in 2011. In a recent survey by Hindustan Times newspaper, 80% of women aged 18-25 said they had been harassed by men in 2011.

Earlier this month, a 17-year-old girl committed suicide after allegedly being pressured by police to withdraw her complaint against three people she accused of raping her.

With Indian media now focusing on reporting issues that would have otherwise been ignored a month ago, the deaths of these women have triggered a spate of attention that may be the provocation for change.

Protesters are calling for tougher sentencing on violent crimes against women, the hiring of more female police officers, and a change in prevailing attitudes known as "eve teasing" -- a euphemism that describes anything from making sexually suggestive remarks to sexual assault.

Inspired by the protests in India, demonstrations are also occurring in south Asian regions where domestic violence and sexual abuse is an unrelenting issue for women, with activists in Nepal, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh demanding change. While these protests have largely been orchestrated and dominated by women, men are joining in too.

The stigma attached to rape victims is still a critical issue across these regions and changing long-held attitudes about such victims is crucial in eliminating gender-based violence.

Meanwhile, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said the safety of women was a "highest concern" for his government, in a meeting with senior government officials.

"Women and girls represent half the population and our society has not been fair to this half. Their socio-economic status is improving, but gaps persist," he said in a speech Thursday.

"The emergence of women in public spaces, which is an absolutely essential part of social emancipation, is accompanied by growing threats to their safety and security."