Helen Roberts, 34, who lives and works in New Delhi, on why the fatal gang rape of a young woman has been the catalyst for a female uprising in India
Picture credit: Rex Features
"There’s a reason why the rape of a 23-year-old medical student in New Delhi on 16 December 2012 has continued to make international news. India was so shocked at the level of brutality administered to an innocent young woman that people took to its streets in an outpouring of grief and anger. Silent protests, candlelit vigils, screaming crowds thrusting curt placards – every shade of outrage has been recorded by the constantly streaming television cameras and frenetic reporters documenting India’s largest public demonstrations in recent history. As head of a news agency, I and my team have been among, and reported on, the women being beaten and dragged through the streets still shouting, determined to have their voices heard. And yet, this is the same country that has a female President of Congress, and prizes education of women as a major priority.
Right across India, the media has been discussing the whys and wherefores of the attack, the rights and wrongs of India’s cultural attitude to forgive and forget such wrongdoings, and what needs to change to safeguard women against sexual violence. And the word has spread. Following news of the medical student’s death on 29 December, crowds in Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh came out onto the streets to call for a uniform overhaul on south Asian attitudes to women.
Reports of another gang rape in Delhi on New Year’s Eve did little to help authorities appealing for calm. Neither did comments from the defendants’ defence lawyer Manohar Lal Sharma who claimed he’d never heard of a ‘respected lady’ being raped in India. Or the implication by Mohan Bhagwat, a politician linked to the right wing opposition party, that women who take up westernised habits will attract criminal attention.
For a country that has such an incredible history and such a phenomenally bright future, sexual harassment and violence towards women is a disfiguring blight on India’s record. The figures speak for themselves; in 2011, just 572 rapes were reported in Delhi. A year later, the annual figures had risen to 632. The Delhi Police data released a month later showed that 754 men were arrested in connection with the 632 cases but the court only punished one man. Most humiliating of all, last year, India was voted the worst place to be a woman in the G20 according to a global poll of experts.
The long fight
The anger towards treatment of women has always been here but now it’s particularly potent for being played out on an international platform. Back in July 2011, the Delhi streets were once again full of protestors making a stand against sexual violence – as part of Slutwalk, the worldwide movement born from a Canadian police officer’s remarks that women should change the way they dress to avoid unwanted attention. In July last year, the country was again appalled by footage of a young woman in Guwahati, Assam, being subjected to a 45-minute sexual attack by a group of men – while being filmed by a local cameraman.
Attitudes to women here are deep rooted in old traditions and sustained by cultural beliefs, and while it depends very much on the class of the family – the matriarch in middle- and upper-class families are the bosses – many women in India are often accepted as second best. In terms of women I have spoken to, there is only so much of their opinion they can voice and only so many of their dreams they can fulfil. If they disagree with something their elder male relative has said they would be encouraged to keep quiet, and if they have dreams of running their own business, they are expected to be married with children first, and still be able to care for their in-laws. When I first started working as a journalist here, one colleague told me ‘It will be hard to get men to listen to you. A man would do better in your job.’
What’s more alarming is that the United Nations Population Fund believes 1,600 girls go missing each day to sex trafficking, dowry marriages – where families sell their daughters to wealthy men for money – or killed as babies because daughters are seen as a burden on finances.
The strength of feeling that continues to make itself felt in India’s cities, and across the subcontinent, has led some to declare that the brutal rape and death of the 23-year-old woman may spark India’s Arab Spring. Indeed, pressure from the protests has forced the Indian government to launch various inquiries – one into the police response to the attack and another to look at how such vicious crimes are punished. Similarly, a new fast-track court has been created to ensure the defendants accused of this rape and murder are tried quickly.
According to Sonia Raina, 29, a New Delhi lawyer, the lack of speed in rape trials is a debilitating issue. ‘India’s judiciary system just doesn’t process rape cases quickly enough, which makes women not bother reporting attacks and lets men think that they can get away with it.’
But there are more obstacles. ‘Women are told by police not to report such cases to avoid being tabooed,’ reveals Raina. ‘It is crazy. Women need to take it on themselves to protect their dignity and freedom; stop listening to ridiculous opinions.
Every woman I have spoken to in Delhi has used recent events as a reason to demand action. And they will hopefully get their way.”