Features | Society | South Asia

Addressing Rape in India

7 years after an infamous rape and murder case, India has made little progress in preventing crimes against women.

By Neeta Lal for
Addressing Rape in India

Indian students perform a play during a protest against sexual violence against women in Ahmadabad, India, Dec. 16, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Ajit Solanki

On February 1, four convicts in the Nirbhaya rape-murder case, which occurred in December 2012 in India’s capital city of New Delhi, will be hanged as per the court’s order.*

The sheer barbarity involved in the crime committed against the 23-year-old paramedic student, who later came to be identified as “Nirbhaya” (meaning fearless), jolted the collective conscience of India’s 1.3 billion people, uniting them in a call for the instant execution of the perpetrators. Thousands of women and activists stormed the streets to demand action in the name of the victim, breaking the usual silence over sexual violence, which often goes unreported.

Taken aback by the backlash, and to appease a nation convulsed by anger, the Indian government implemented legal reforms mandating harsher punishments for rapists. The prison sentence term for rapists was doubled to 20 years, stalking was made a crime, and new initiatives aimed at improving safety for women were launched. In 2014, shortly after Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office, his government also pledged a “zero tolerance” policy on violence against women, promising to “strengthen the criminal justice system.”

Yet oddly, seven years on and stiffer punishments for the guilty notwithstanding, a sense of disenchantment still lingers in the air. Women feel they aren’t any safer on the streets as, among other things, ossified patriarchal norms rob them of agency.

“Nothing has changed for women at all,” Asha Devi, Nirbhaya’s mother, angrily told the media following the court’s verdict on January 7. “So many of these incidents are continuing to happen.”

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Even the Supreme Court has admitted that changes effected to criminal law after the Nirbhaya case haven’t yielded results.

According to statistics, a woman is raped in India every 20 minutes. India was also declared the most dangerous country in the world for women due to the high risk of sexual violence and of being forced into slave labor, according to a 2018 survey by the Thompson Reuters Foundation.

In the recent past, gruesome cases of sexual assault have surfaced from all corners of the country, including the abduction, gang rape, and murder of a young lawyer in Jharkhand; the rape and murder of a 55-year-old cloth seller in Delhi’s Gulabi Bagh neighborhood; and a teenager in the state of Bihar who was gang raped and killed before being set ablaze.

Last month in the southern city of Hyderabad, the police controversially shot dead four men suspected of raping and killing a 27-year-old veterinarian, earning  plaudits from her family and citizens outraged over crimes against women. In the Indian parliament. the response by several politicians (including an erstwhile prominent actor) was simply to call for the accused to be “lynched” and “hanged.”

This sentiment, say experts, undermines the process of justice. Capital punishment acts as a perverse incentive for rapists to murder their victims in an effort to destroy evidence. This is supported by National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, which reveals a 30 percent rise in victims being murdered after rape.

“All the talk of the death penalty for rape just means we may be seeing more women murdered so they can’t remain alive as a witness,” says Janaki Vishwanathan, who works at a Delhi-based women’s self-help group.

Making things worse is the low conviction rate in rape cases, one of the lowest in the world. Across India these figures were an abysmal 0.3 percent in 2018. According to the NCRB, 156,327 rape cases went on trial that year. Of these, trial was completed in only 17,313 cases and just 4,708 cases resulted in a conviction. There were acquittals in 11,133 rape cases and discharges in 1,472 cases.

An overburdened judiciary (India has one of the lowest judge-to-citizen ratios in the world) has further hobbled crime prevention. As of 2018, there were 133,000 pending rape cases in the courts. In May, a panel of judges dismissed allegations of sexual harassment against the erstwhile chief justice of India made by a former court employee in a ruling that infuriated women and activists. The chief justice denied the claims.

There’s consensus among women activists that a complete overhaul of the judicial system is the only way to ensure speedier justice for victims. “The low conviction rate shows that perpetrators of sexual violence enjoy a high degree of impunity, including being freed of charges,” said Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association. “The fact that even a high-profile case like Nirbhaya’s took seven long years to reach a conclusion underscores how slowly the wheels of justice move in the country.”

Sexual assault occurs with frightening regularity in this country, adds the activist. “We need to evolve punishments that act as true deterrents to the very large number of men who commit these crimes,” she said.

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An apathetic police force, which remains uninterested in the cause of gender justice, hasn’t helped either. Media reports have highlighted how staff at police stations and hospitals are often rude toward survivors, despite training in handling sexual assault and rape cases. Doubts are often cast over the veracity of victims’ statements. Awareness about the anti-rape law is also scant among cops, many complain.

The center’s decision to set up 1,023 special courts for the speedy trial of cases of sexual assault on women and children, unfortunately, hasn’t borne great results. These fast-track courts are underperforming and can dispose of just 21.5 percent of cases in less than a year, while 42.5 percent of cases took over three years and 17 percent over five years, says a survey.

According to Flavia Agnes, a women’s rights lawyer and co-founder of Majlis, a feminist organization, India needs a higher budgetary allocation to build the infrastructure and facilities for rape cases. “Why do these cases have to wait long for justice? We need budgetary allocation [and] political will as well as sensitivity down the chain,” she said.

Ironically, though the state set up the Nirbhaya Fund (worth 10 billion rupees) in 2013 to finance initiatives focused on women’s safety and on assisting female victims of violence, it remains largely unutilized, with less than 20 percent used by state governments between 2015 and 2018.

Where does the solution lie? Krishnan feels there’s a need to widen the conversation from just retributive justice for rape victims to other social aspects, “like why there are curbs on women’s autonomy to move around and lead free, independent lives.

“Though rapes happen all over the world, the patriarchal entitlement among Indian males to ‘control’ the lives of their women (wives, sisters, daughters) breeds many problems. According to studies, 50 percent of Indian women can’t step out of their homes without seeking permission from a male member,” elaborates the activist.

India’s complex social landscape further hobbles delivery of justice. For instance, explains Agnes, according to research most perpetrators are known to the victim, and rapes often happen within homes. “This leads all parties to hush up the matter post the crime so that no stigma is attached to the girl. Unfortunately, it is the woman who is left bearing the cross while the man gets away scot-free!”

There’s consensus among stakeholders that until the key social issues behind the crisis are addressed, the culture of impunity for sexual crimes will remain firmly embedded in India.

Neeta Lal is a Delhi-based editor and journalist.

*The date for the hanging was originally set for January 22; the piece has been updated to reflect the new date.