The brutal gang-rape of a 23-year old student in Delhi and her subsequent death has triggered intense, unrelenting outrage across India. For weeks now, thousands of Indians have poured into the streets every day to demand her assailants be put to death.
Pre-trial proceedings have begun for five of the six accused— with the sixth man believed to be awaiting trial under the Juvenile Justice Act because of his status as a minor. The other five have been charged with abduction, rape, and murder among other crimes.
The media has begun calling the 23-year-old victim, whose identity remains concealed, a number of different names including Nirbhaya (fearless in Hindi), Damini (lightning) and Jagruti (awakening). Indeed, the horrific violence she has endured appears to have woken India from its willful neglect of the rights of its female population.
Sexual violence is pervasive in India. According to National Crime Records Bureau statistics, 24,206 rapes were recorded in 2011, equivalent to one rape every 28 minutes.
These figures barely scratch the surface of the problem, however, given that most cases of sexual violence go unreported because victims choose to remain silent for a host of different reasons, including the social stigma attached to rape victims. Questions are often raised about the character of the victim, such as why she was out late at night or what she wore or did to provoke the assault. Even in the case of Nirbhaya, controversial “spiritual” guru Asaram Bapu made headlines when he blamed her for the rape because she failed to call her assailants “brother” while they raped her.
"She should have taken God's name and held their hands and feet… then the misconduct wouldn't have happened," Bapu told an audience of supporters. "Mistake is never from one side alone."
Many times the assailant is a relative or close acquaintance of the victim and rape survivors are often pressured to just “shut up and forget about it,” a Bangalore-based rape survivor told The Diplomat. In her case, it had been an uncle who had raped her for years.
Rape victims are also deterred from reporting the crime because Indian policemen are notoriously awful at handling cases of sexual assault. It is not uncommon for police officers to flatly refuse to file a victim’s complaint, especially if the person(s) accused are of a dominant caste or have political connections. Besides, many women do not feel safe going to an all-male police station.