Lounge Opinion: One year after the Delhi gang-rape6 min read . Updated: 16 Dec 2013, 01:18 PM IST
How have things changed for women in the year after the Delhi gang-rape
How have things changed for women in the year after the Delhi gang-rape
On the anniversary of the 2012 brutal Delhi gang-rape, we must acknowledge India’s achievements over the last year in order to draw strength and inspiration for the long road ahead.
Mini (names changed) is a 24-year-old woman who works at my friend Jyoti’s house. Three days ago, she told Jyoti that her 15-year-old sister was gang-raped in a remote village in Jharkand. As part of a family dispute, the son of a man well-known to her brought two friends and watched as they raped her on her way home from school. When Jyoti wanted to help Mini press charges, take her sister to the hospital, get the morning-after pill, Mini was silent. Then she said, “It is like this for women. At least she didn’t die."
Indian women often live lives of low expectations—women who hope to get through life without being beaten too badly, without giving birth to girls, without being killed for not having enough dowry, without being visible. We know these women: they are the women who work in our houses, our colleagues, our friends, our mothers, our grandmothers. Some of us are these women. Like Mini, we’re grateful to not die.
And yet, what happened a year ago in New Delhi shifted something in these expectations making Mini’s response seem suddenly anachronistic. How could she not push her family to march to the nearest police station to file charges against the rapists? Didn’t she realize that things had changed?
The truth is, of course, that things haven’t changed. Not to the extent it should, not even substantially and certainly not for everyone. But amid all the anguish and recrimination that this anniversary inspires, it is important to take a moment to reflect on what has changed. Because today, India is a different place from what it was on 16 December 2012. We must use this moment not just to mourn the loss of a girl who was brutally gang-raped and killed one year ago, but also to reflect and count what was achieved after that death. It is only this reflection that will give us the strength and patience for the very long road ahead.
First, not enough has been said about how quickly the rape laws were changed. India’s women’s movement has been agitating to change the rape laws since the 1970s to shift the burden of proof from the raped to the rapist and end brutal practices like the “two-finger test" where a doctor inserts two fingers into the vagina of a raped woman to see if the hymen is broken. (Note: according to this practice, sexually active women cannot be raped).
Then the December rape happened. A commission was appointed that invited over 80,000 inputs and consulted widely with lawyers, feminist scholars and international law enforcement and judicial specialists on rape. In three months—three months—the Indian rape law changed substantially. It took 14 years to pass the women’s parliamentary quota Bill.
The law expands the definition of rape by including any type of penetration of any type of orifice and stating explicitly that the absence of physical struggle does not equate consent. All healthcare providers are now mandated by law to give free medical care to victims/survivors of any violence against women, including assault. The two-finger test is now illegal. The law also mandates compulsory jail time for public servants who fail to register a complaint or commits sexual assault. Having grown up with cautionary tales of women who dared to report assault and rape only to be raped again by the police, the importance of this milestone cannot be over-stated.
The speed and extent of this legislative reform has been matched by the power and fury of the social movement that led to these changes. Make no mistake: the rape law did not change because parliamentarians suddenly took notice. They changed because of the outrage that threatened to unseat the government and the opposition party in one blow. This outrage was remarkable in its non-remarkable participants: college boys donning skirts in Bangalore, domestic workers staging street plays in Kolkata, employees of call centres demanding safe transport in Pune, Bollywood with banners, a young woman perched on a flagpole outside Parliament, sticking an angry middle finger up at the sky. When the Delhi chief minister called a rape survivor “adventurous" because she was out at night, the head of the All India Progressive Women’s Alliance said in a video that went viral, “Yes we will be adventurous. We will be reckless. It is our right to go out of the house any time we want and it is your job," pointing to the chief minister outside whose house she was protesting, “to protect my right."
Importantly, this protest has been democratic in its anger. A Punjabi rap singer was uninvited from singing his women-hating rap songs (one of which is a paean to gang-rape in a van) at a New Year’s shindig at a five-star hotel. A famous godman was publicly ridiculed for suggesting that the gang-rape of the young woman in Delhi must have been her fault, too (he is currently in jail for raping a 13-year-old girl). Most recently, the Editor-in-Chief of one of India’s best news-houses has been accused of rape by one of its young journalists. The country watched, spellbound, as this powerful, much-sought-after man, the mastermind of corruption exposes that have brought the highest-ranking ministers in the country to their knees, came under public scrutiny. He is in jail. In a country where power equals immunity, these achievements are not small.
The road ahead is very long. The new laws are far from perfect. Not recognizing marital rape legalizes the rape of women by their husbands. Armed forces and personnel serving under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and other special laws cannot be prosecuted—which means Indian soldiers serving in Kashmir and other troubled regions of the country can (and do) rape with impunity. Non-heterosexual rape is not recognized.
But we have to take hope from the fact—for it is a fact—that things are changing. Reporting of rape in New Delhi, India’s notoriously unsafe capital, has gone up by 140% in the last year. Reporting of sexual harassment has gone up by 600%. The new laws have had an impact. The outrage helped. The continued media scrutiny is working. Not hard enough, not fast enough and not for everyone, but they are working.
Mini’s sister is one of the people these changes have failed. In fact, it is uncertain whether any of this anger has changed anything for poor women. Does a domestic worker know that she can walk into a posh hospital next door if she is raped by her employer? If she knew and she went to the hospital, would they let her in? A policeman may no longer refuse to file charges when an educated woman insists but will he listen to an illiterate woman who has no bribe to offer or media contact to threaten with? The lion’s share of work remains to make these changes universally applicable and felt.
It is for this long road ahead, in fact, that we must reflect on and note our achievements in the last year. The courage and determination of our struggle in the last year will have to sustain us through the inevitable media and publicity fatigue, bureaucratic challenges and the very deep-rooted patriarchy that continues to underpin much of Indian identity and morality. It should not take more rapes for us to continue to fight. Mini should never have to say in the future, “This is our fate as women."
The women of India who have stood up for their rights in the last year, including the fearless woman whose death we remember today, remind us why so many Indian gods are fierce and powerful women, swords in hand, heads of enemies hanging in garlands around their necks. I hope their courage and our shared successes in the last year will sustain our long fight for equality.
Antara Ganguli works in international development, with a focus on gender equality issues.