By Trisha Parikh
India is the world’s largest democracy, with 1.2 billion people—approximately 48% are women. One of the most powerful politicians in India is a woman as well: Sonia Gandhi, the President of the Indian National Congress. Contrary to cultural expectations and external perceptions, a number of women have held positions of considerable power in the Indian government and community. Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister of India for four terms. Yet, even though many women in India have evaded the expectations of a historically male-dominated society, women in India do not share the same-equal status as men. While Indian laws do not discriminate based on gender, mainstream society believes and acts differently–and this prevailing mentality has made women in India increasingly vulnerable to sexual assault and harm.
The recent cases of brutal rape in India highlight the conflict that many Indian women and women all around the world continuously encounter. In December 2012, a 23-year-old female student was violently raped in New Delhi. In early January 2013, Indian police documented two more cases of rape—one in the state of Punjab and another in the state of Bihar. While these cases have been widespread in the media, the media fail to account for the numerous undocumented, unreported cases of rape that occur in India. Last year, there were 24,000 cases of rape reported in India, a number that has increased by 25% from the last six years. An article in the Washington Monthly suggests that this number reported seems to be abnormally low, “when you take into account that just under 85,000 rapes were reported in the United States in 2010. So India, with about four times the population of the U.S., has fewer than a third as many rapes reported.” Under this assumption, it would be safe to assume that the number of actual rapes occurring far surpasses 85,000.
Although the number of reported rape cases has increased in the last decade, there is little advancement in protection for women—particularly by the judicial system. In 2011, the National Crime Records Bureau calculated that out of the approximately 15,000 rape cases that made it to court, only 26.4% of them were convicted. This means that the majority of the criminals are acquitted or not even tried for their crimes, which has two implications: first, many criminals are not being held responsible for their actions and second, if sex criminals are not convicted and punished, there is no form of deterrence for future crimes.
The general perception in society is that as a country develops and grows economically, it becomes more modern and progressive. However, as India grows and emerges as one of the top developing countries in the world, as it educates and employs a greater percentage of women, the perception of women and protection for women’s rights remain relatively unchanged. India’s President, Pranab Mukherjee, stated that “the brutal rape and murder of a young woman, a woman who was a symbol of all that new India strives to be, has left our hearts empty and our minds in turmoil…when we brutalize a woman, we wound the soul of our civilization.” These cases have highlighted the gender equality gap that still exists in Indian society, even with modernization of society and passage of progressive laws.
Why does this gender gap exist? Seema Sirohi from Indian Council on Global Relations suggests that ” the patriarchal system is one [reason], a lack of policing is another, and general treatment of women is not equal to men, even though it may be so under the law” In addition, despite how conservatively a woman dresses “you are still open season for men.” This statement echoes the response many politicians, police, and citizens have to the violent rape and death of the young woman and protests that followed it. Police not only use violent means to silence the peaceful student protests around the country, but many politicians demonstrated their insensitivity to the issue of rape and the status of women in the country. To quote a few:
The Indian President’s son, Abhijit Mukherjee, called women protestors “dented and painted,” in reference to their outfits and makeup, and stated that they go “from discos to demonstrations.”
In reference to the Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s announcement that rape victims would be offered compensation, a male Communist leader— in an effort to question her decision— asked: “What is your fee? If you are raped, what will be your fee?”
While these quotes demonstrate the mentality of the political elite in India, these attitudes still prevail amongst the general population. How can women in India expect reform if the people responsible for making the reforms, and the public in general, does not understand the grave nature of sexual crimes against women? Many politicians have taken a stance against the violence and vowed to push for stricter punishments and reforms that will improve safety for women. Yet, women are viewed as objects rather than as equals. Furthermore, corruption within the government often leads to many issues being ignored and overlooked, including punishments for crimes. While there is no easy solution to the issue of women and their image in India, deliverance of justice and societal attitudes towards women must be reformed.
As we have seen in many other countries, it has taken women decades to close the socioeconomic male-female gender gap. But legislative reform begins with social reform. There needs to be a change in the mentality that both men and women have about a woman’s role in society. On one end of the spectrum, girls and women in India must continue to raise awareness of their struggles and protest in a traditionally male-dominated society. Both men and women must also fight for protection and equal status. At the other end, the female politicians in the government have to take an active and strong stance against crimes against women. In the face of brutal opposition from more regressive politicians, they must prioritize
The young woman’s brutal rape and death stand as a representation what victims of rape endure—through the social and political system that is currently in place. Any hope of reform, protection, and safety will require the collective efforts of all people in the Indian society, primarily by changing the mentality of the population as well as a reformed and less corrupt system of justice that does not bend the law for criminals.
Figures obtained from Al Jazeera, the New York Times, the Times of India, World Bank, and Wall Street Journal.
Image credit: Associated Press
Trisha Parikh is a fourth year Economics and Political Science double major. She is a co-editor at the Generation.