India: five years on

The 16 December 2012 marked a turning point in the treatment of sexual assault in India.
The circumstances surrounding this fateful day spread across global media channels over the days and months that followed. Five years on – the day, the victim and the heinous crimes committed. 

All are remembered
The day 16 December 2017 commemorates the five-year anniversary of the bus gang-rape of 23-year-old Jyoti Singh, who later succumbed to her injuries on 29 December 2012. She was on the bus home with her friend at the time of the attack, when an argument ensued with six others on the bus. Although the friend was beaten and gagged, he ultimately survived. The perpetrators then moved toward Jyoti. They raped her repeatedly, as well as penetrating her with an iron rod, which caused major damage to her genitals and intestines. The couple boarded the bus at about 8:30pm, they were thrown out of the moving bus at 9:45pm naked and barely holding on to consciousness.

It was the sheer brutality of this case and the barbarity of the perpetrators which brought about widespread public protests and led to changes in the Indian Penal Code, Code of Criminal Procedure as well as the Indian Evidence Amendment in 2013.

The five-year-anniversary of the brutal gang rape in Delhi raises the question of whether the situation has really changed for women and girls in India. Interviews conducted by The Guardian, the published criminal statistics as well as another more recent groundbreaking case all suggest an urgent call for change. 

" Protester Posters and Candles seeking Justice for Gang rape Victim-008 " by   Ramesh Lalwani     is licensed under  CC BY 2.0

"Protester Posters and Candles seeking Justice for Gang rape Victim-008" by Ramesh Lalwani is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Girls and women in the interviews conducted by The Guardian, although acknowledging the prompt government response after the 2012 incident, agree that the situation for them remains largely unchanged. Women and girls have been empowered and encouraged to take up self-defence, but at the same time, this in itself leads to a problematic rhetoric.

Little effort is put into changing the conceptions and beliefs harboured by a portion of men in these communities, which is one of the causes of such threats. Instead, the burden is placed on the victims to protect themselves against abuse. This approach is far from preventative, and in the longer-term will not address the systemic issues we see in societal and cultural attitudes towards women and girls. 

One of the lawyers who had previously defended in the Jyoti Singh murder case, remarked: ‘In our society, we never allow our girls to come out from the house after 6:30 or 7:30 or 8:30 in the evening with any unknown person… You are talking about man and woman as friends. Sorry, that doesn’t have any place in our society. We have the best culture. In our culture, there is no place for a woman.’ (M.L. Sharma, Lawyer)

Furthermore, the 2015 crime statistics in India evidence that in more than 95% of the rape cases, victims knew their perpetrators. Notably, Delhi was the state with the highest overall rate of crimes against women. Marital rape is not considered a criminal offence under the current Indian Law, which only results in a distortion and underrepresentation of the number of rape cases, but also strips away the women’s right to consent to sexual intercourse during marriage. 

Last year, we witnessed another groundbreaking case take centre stage in India. The case concerned a 10-year-old girl who was repeatedly raped by a relative and became pregnant. Yet, the petition for an abortion was rejected by the Indian Supreme Court in July 2017 and she was subsequently forced to deliver the baby. Women and girls have the right to access reproductive health care; they must be given the right to decide their own health and reproductive choices, including but not limited to, the right to an abortion.

The scale of sexual abuse in India is alarming
According to the Indian government and studies conducted by UNICEF, more than 10,000 children were raped in 2015 and half of the perpetrators were known to the victims. Combining these statistics with the high prevalence of child marriage in India, we can see that there is a dire need for change.

Women and children are still highly vulnerable and inadequately protected by the law. Although some legislative reform has been achieved, we see a lack of strict enforcement as well as prevailing patriarchal perceptions in Indian society, which only results in persistently high criminal and sexual assault rates. The Indian laws are in further need of amendment as they still show signs of major legislative weakness, especially regarding the lack of recognition of marital rape and women’s rights to reproductive autonomy.