Home / Politics / Policy /  Gang-rapes reignite angry debate about women’s safety in India

New Delhi: Mumbai police said they arrested all the five suspects accused of raping a young photographer as a similar attack on a female officer in Jharkhand reignited an angry debate about the safety of women in the country.

The crime in India’s financial capital triggered street protests and an outpouring of anger as India prepares to hold national elections by May. Jharkhand police said on 24 August that one of their female officers was pulled out of a car and gang-raped by bandits as she escorted the body of her murdered sister to be cremated last week.

“Law and order is going to be one of the biggest election issues," said N. Bhaskara Rao, chairman of the New Delhi-based Centre for Media Studies. “Angry voters want to know why the government is not able to stop these attacks. The more they keep happening, the more this issue is going to snowball."

The attacks follow a bout of national soul-searching caused by the gang-rape and murder of a student in New Delhi in December that triggered weeks of national protests. Even after the enactment of new laws imposing stricter penalties for men who attack women and the setting up of fast-track courts, India is struggling to tame violent and chauvinistic male attitudes that leave ordinary women vulnerable to harassment and rape.

Four of the suspects accused of the 22 August gang-rape of the photojournalist working as an intern at a magazine have been detained and produced in court, Satyanarayan Choudhary, a spokesman for the Mumbai police, said in a telephone interview. A fifth suspect was arrested in Delhi, Press Trust of India reported on Sunday, citing an unidentified police official.

The woman was attacked while shooting an abandoned textile mill with a male colleague. While the victim was taken away and repeatedly raped, her companion was tied up and assaulted.

Tougher punishment

The incident has led to comparisons with the fatal gang-rape of a physiotherapist in New Delhi at the end of last year. Protesters in Mumbai took to the streets over the weekend and there was uproar in parliament on 23 August with lawmakers calling for tougher sentences for rapists.

The five suspects are likely to face prosecution under a new law that sets the maximum prison term for rape at 20 years if they are convicted.

When her mother called as the woman was being raped, the men held a broken beer bottle to her throat, threatening her to say everything was all right, according to the Hindustan Times newspaper, citing the victim’s statement to the police. Concerned that something was wrong, her mother called back and was again given assurances nothing was wrong, the paper said.

Policewoman attacked

The Jharkhand police officer was attacked last week although details only emerged on 24 August because she didn’t initially report the crime. The officer was travelling with her family late at night when their car was stopped by axe-wielding men, who robbed them and later took her to an isolated spot and raped her, Superintendent of Police Michael S. Raj said in a telephone interview.

The woman, a widow in her late twenties, was taking the body of her sister who was shot dead by criminals, he said. She joined the police force only last year after her husband was killed by Maoist insurgents.

In response to public fury about the Delhi gang-rape, the government toughened laws on sexual assault, criminalizing stalking and voyeurism, and allowing for capital punishment if an attack leaves the victim in a vegetative state. This has failed to reduce the crime. In Delhi, the Indian city that has the highest number of sexual assaults, the attacks doubled in the first six months of the year.

Tourism drop

Safety concerns among women travellers were partly to blame for a 35% drop in female foreign tourist arrivals in the first three months of this year, according to an April study by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry in India.

India’s tourism minister K. Chiranjeevi expressed his concern about the safety of foreign tourists after an American student living in India for three months wrote about her experiences on the website of CNN. The woman Michaela Cross said she suffered from post-traumatic stress after returning to the US from India.

“I was extremely pained when I read about the harassment," Chiranjeevi said in a statement. Chiranjeevi is working to raise awareness so men are more sensitive toward female tourists and to provide them with greater security.

A 2011 survey by the Thomson Reuters Foundation listed India as the fourth-worst place in the world to be a woman, after Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Pakistan. The report cited abortions of girl fetuses, human trafficking, sexual violence and poor education.

Verdicts in the trial of those accused of taking part in the 16 December Delhi attack are expected soon, with the juvenile justice board set to issue its judgment on a teenage suspect on 31 August. The closing arguments in the trial of the four other men started last week.

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