India demands changes after rape victim’s death

Tipping point: Protesters vent their fury outside Delhi’s Presidential Palace © Getty Images

A 23-year-old student on an evening out in New Delhi was raped so brutally that she died of her injuries. Public anger has brought promises of greater safety for women in India.

After battling to overcome her injuries during nearly two weeks in hospital, the 23-year-old victim of a now notorious New Delhi gang rape finally lost her fight to survive the ordeal just before the New Year, and died with her parents by her bedside.

The case has sparked mass protests in India by those who say the shocking level of violence and contempt the rapists directed at the young student is all too prevalent among men in their country and in its capital city.

The victim, wrote one foreign correspondent, ‘came to be seen as the embodiment of all young urban Indian women, many of whom say they face routine sexual harassment, either verbal or physical, in public spaces.’

Six men, including the driver of the bus on which the attack took place, now face charges of murder as well as rape. The five who have been confirmed as adults could hang. But the speed at which the authorities have moved to make the arrests is said to be unusual in a country where a rape is estimated to occur, mostly with impunity, every 20 minutes.

A survey of experts last summer reported that India was ‘the worst place in the world to be a woman’. But until now the world’s largest democracy, also an economic and business power of growing global importance, seems to have been impervious to international criticism of how the female population’s lives are blighted by inequality and abuse.

The case of ‘Damini’, as she has been called, may change at least some of this: three weeks later protesters are still out on New Delhi’s streets with placards demanding that modern India be made safe for all its citizens. One young woman complained that she was scared to go out of the house: her homemade poster read ‘65 years of freedom: is my country really mine? I’m still waiting to live.’

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has promised that he will ‘ensure security and safety to all women in this country.’ But the younger generation are suspicious that safety might really mean the old limits on acceptable female behaviour – especially on having a life beyond the family. After other recent rape scandals in India, politicians have easily condemned the victims for being in the wrong place, wearing the wrong clothes, or just having ‘adventurous spirit.’

Safe or sorry

Some will argue that until public places are made safe for women and sexual attacks punished by proper enforcement of tough laws, it is only sensible not to go out or to behave in any way that could include a risk of rape.

Enough! others cry. Indian women should be able to take part in the daily life of their rapidly changing nation. This horrific case has brought them onto the streets in anger: they should not be forced back into the shadows.

You Decide

  1. How does reading about this case make you feel?
  2. Is Manmohan Singh, India’s prime minister, right to call for ‘dispassionate debate’? Or is the widespread public anger a better response?

Activities

  1. Write to the Indian government with your ideas on what should change in India.
  2. Write a list of ways in which a woman can avoid attacks: which of these are sensible precautions and which an unreasonable limit to freedom?

Some People Say...

“It shouldn’t take a young woman’s death to change attitudes.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I have been trying to ignore this story.
I know. The details of the attack are almost too horrible to think about. But because the violence was so extreme, it has resulted in a sort of ‘women’s rebellion’ in New Delhi, and could result in changes. Of course, the young woman who died didn’t choose to become a martyr – she was just enjoying an evening out at the cinema with a friend.
OK, that’s all interesting, but I don’t live in India.
Unfortunately, the problem of women having to limit what they do, say and wear because they fear rape is relevant everywhere. But in the developing world, women who are pioneers in claiming the freedoms traditionally enjoyed only by men run the risk of being seen as ‘fair game.’

Word Watch

New Delhi
India’s capital city, where violent attacks on women are said to be more common than in other cities.
65 years of freedom
India gained its independence from the British Empire in 1947. It has maintained democracy since then in a country with more than a billion people and where at least 20 different languages are spoken.
Damini
The rape victim’s name and details about her life were kept secret, the authorities only disclosed her age and that she was a physiotherapy student on an evening out with a male friend. Damini is the heroine of a Bollywood film who insists on bringing a rapist to justice. The victim has also been called ‘daughter of the nation.’

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