Violence Against Women and Gang Rape: India’s Continuing Shame

Bollywood actress Nandita Das challenges her country to remember Nirbhaya, the 23-year-old New Delhi student repeatedly raped before dying of her wounds Arun Sharma/Hindustan Times via Getty

The gang rape on a bus in New Delhi of 23-year-old student Nirbhaya, ( a pseudonym, meaning “Fearlessness,” to protect her true identity), stunned not only India but the rest of the world. And it prompted the Bollywood actress Nandita Das to campaign on behalf of vulnerable women in India.

“When I heard about this gang rape,” she recalled, “I thought, Oh my God, yet again. I did not realize the reaction was going to be so huge because this was not the first time such an incident was happening. This has been happening for years.”

Nirbhaya did not survive the assault, dying within days at a hospital in Singapore where she had been flown because of the seriousness of her wounds. But her rape and subsequent death have had a lasting effect not only in raising a topic that has long festered in Indian society, but by causing some extensive soul searching over the adequacy of the Indian penal code.

Shortly after Nirbhaya’s death, “One Billion Rising”, a movement started by Eve Ensler, the American playwright best know for The Vagina Monologues, declared that on February 14, men and women should “rise, strike and dance” across India to protest at violence against women.

As India marks the first anniversary of One Billion Rising, Nandita Das describes Indian women's unyielding quest for justice.

Why was the Nirbhaya case different and why did it trigger the reaction it did in India?

I think it was something of a tipping point. It just so happened that there was a collective consciousness that has shifted, saying that 'We are not going to tolerate this anymore.' And it was almost a simultaneous outpour, whether it was the media, whether it was just people, whether it was women across the board. One thing leads to the other. When you see that kind of strength, it also gives strength to others who may otherwise keep quiet on such issues.

What has changed in the last year?

Nothing has really changed in terms of the crimes. They continue. Just the next day, there was a 3-year-old child who was raped and there was a case involving an 80-year-old woman.

But, what has changed is the breaking of the culture of silence. I was told of a 200 percent rise in just reporting of such cases in Delhi alone. People are not shying away. Victims are not made to feel like they are the ones who have to be ashamed.  All the stigma that surrounds issues of sexual harassment and rape has come out.

What needs to change?

The outpour and candle light marches are great. I don’t want to be cynical about it, but we need to do more. Every positive step is important. But, more importantly, the police machinery needs to change. Many more convictions need to happen in cases like this, as the [current] conviction rate is very low.

Of course there are all kinds of debates. People want these convicts to be hanged.  I am not in favor of the death penalty so when I wrote about it, I received a lot of hate mail saying "Are you in support of the culprits and the perpetrators?" Of course I am not, but I don't think hanging one person is going to make all of us women safer.

We need to have a more nuanced debate and make sure that everything happens simultaneously. There are groups taking concrete, actionable steps. There are, for instance, many “safety apps” that you can now use if you are in danger. People volunteer in a certain area to intervene and help when you press that app.

You can actually perform a safety audit though Google Maps to check whether a place is crowded, if there are enough lights etc. These actionable, practical solutions make the city a safer place.

Of course, it does not mean we don’t ask the basic questions about the patriarchal society, the roots of power struggle that give rise to these horrendous crimes

How do you create change across the whole country?  

When a rape happens in a city, the urban youth galvanize, but they happen at much higher rates in the dalit community, in tribal areas among the rural poor and we don’t react in the same way. We need to broaden that to make sure that all women are safe in India.

Of course, when this kind of an outpour happens in big cities, because of televisions in every home, it has a rippling effect in smaller towns and even villages. But, I think it is for us, urban middle class people, who think of ourselves as more educated and more progressive, to give the same attention to a case that happens in a small village in Kerala.

And there were so many cases in Kerala that came soon after the Nirbhaya case - of fathers raping their daughters. What happened to them? Where are their updates? Why aren't we demanding? So, we are all complicit in this crime of getting used to it and saying, “OK, when such a big case happens again in Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta, we will be back on the streets.” We really need to sustain this kind of a struggle and put the pressure, because there is a sense of urgency that we sometimes forget.

How do you change gender roles in traditional societies where the rule of law is absent?

In communities where women are more hesitant to even go to a police station to complain, there is going to be less [progress]. But again, there are slow changes taking place. More and more, women are taking part in the Panchyati Raj - the local administrative body in villages.

Thirty-three percent of women are now heads of villages. Even though it  may be just a stamp and maybe their brothers and husbands do most of the work, it has been seen that as village heads women are slowly asserting [themselves]. They are getting their women and girls educated.

Also, organizations do exist in the rural areas. There are some fake organizations, but there are some brilliant ones who are quietly doing their work. They are the ones providing support and encouragement to women to speak up.

How has the media fared in covering the issue?

A lot of regional news is now making it to national news, probably just because [TV stations] need to fill in their 24 hours -- the point being that some of these cases would have [otherwise] died without a trace. Thankfully, these cases are being exposed, although I don't think we are following [them to] their logical conclusion.

There was a massive case in Maharashtra, in Khairlanji, that the media took up in a big way. The case involved a dalit man, where wife and daughter were abused and they were ... brutally killed. It was a horrible case of extreme crime. The coverage went on for a while, but it still died.

So, I think it is our responsibility, as well as the responsibility of the media, to constantly give us updates. Even if the update is to say, “There has been no justice.” Let it be a constant reminder that when we ask for justice, we are for “Justice for all.”

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