This week a verdict had been expected in the New Delhi case of the rape and assault of a twenty-three-year-old woman by six men in late 2012. This is certainly not the only such case in New Delhi, but it did quickly become one of the most prominent in both national and international media, due to its brutal nature causing the victim to die two weeks after the attack.
On 16 December 2012, Jyoti Singh left a New Delhi cinema with her friend Awindra Pandey and boarded a bus to go home. On the bus, she was harassed by six men, who ultimately raped her repeatedly for at least an hour, beat her and Pandey with a lead pipe, and threw both of them from the moving bus to the street only half conscious. Two weeks later, Singh died in a hospital in Singapore from her injuries, and the police arrested all six perpetrators. They have remained in custody ever since, though one hung himself in his cell and died. A final decision on the case was to be taken this week, but has been delayed to 31 August because the Juvenile Justice Board has requested specification of the term minor from the Supreme Court of India. The other four suspects, all adults, face the death penalty.
Despite being a particularly brutal case, it does not stand alone in a city that some refer to as the rape capital of India. Sexual abuse, ranging from whistling and degrading remarks to rape, is a fact of life for women. Exact numbers are hard to get, but a rough calculation indicates that the 570 reported rapes in 2012 are not even 1 percent of the actual total. In comparison, in the Netherlands, a country with a similar population, 66 percent of such crimes are reported. Without question, rape is a real and serious problem in India, and women are unwilling to report the crime to the police, which means that they are in effect denied justice. The ignorant and accusatory attitude victims face from police when reporting the crime partly explains the reluctance to come forward. Police attitude, however, only reflects the root cause of the problem: the inequality of and discrimination against Indian women. Victims often cannot turn to their families, or if they do, they experience the same shame and fear that enabled the attack in the first place. As special UN rapporteur on violence against women Rashida Manjoo explained, “Violence against women in India lasts from the womb to the grave.” She calls for continued and intensified regulatory and policy measures, implementation and elaboration of the groundbreaking Verma Committee recommendations on tackling violence against women, and change in societal attitudes.
The rape of Jyoti Singh could be the trigger event to bringing about the societal change so desperately needed in India. The attention and social uproar the case has unleashed, combined with the extensive national and international media coverage it has received, might culminate in the social movement needed for long-term, profound societal change.
Social change theory teaches us that social movement can be effective as long as it is successful in keeping momentum and includes all parties concerned. A strategy and focus of activities are critical: the issue needs to remain on the agenda; the supporting platform needs to stay active and committed and expand; and activities need to target change through education, training, campaigning, and raising awareness. Let us hope that recent events in New Delhi stimulate local authorities to listen to public demands and keep working to improve regulatory framework and—even more important—enforcement. Only with such an integrated, focused, and comprehensive approach can there be a positive outcome from the Singh case: specifically, making sure that India takes seriously the tasks and obligations it accepted by ratifying the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. For a country entering the world stage as an emerging country, it is high time to act.