Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

India won't achieve prominence without justice for women

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Something is terribly wrong with the way women are treated in India, the world's largest democracy. The horrific Dec. 16 gang rape of a 23-year-old student on a New Delhi bus has sparked massive protests and loud demands for reform. But it's far from the only example of abuse endured by women routinely denied full protection under India's defective criminal justice system.

The victim in this case died early Saturday, 13 days after six men raped her and remorselessly beat her and a male companion with iron bars while driving around the city. The pair was then dumped at the side of the road. What's unusual about this incident is its savagery and the use of a bus -- not the rape itself which, sadly, is all too common.

In just the days that followed, a 10-year-old was gang-raped, killed and her body thrown in a canal in another part of India. And a 14-year-old schoolgirl was left in critical condition after being raped by four men. On Wednesday, a 12-year-old was raped by three men as she walked to her grandparents' house. And on Thursday came news that a 17-year-old girl had committed suicide after police reportedly pressured her to marry one of the men who raped her last month or, at least, accept a financial settlement.

More than almost anywhere else, violence against women is a brutal fact of life in the Indian subcontinent. According to official figures cited by Agence France Presse, females were victims in almost 230,000 of the more than 256,000 violent crimes reported in India last year. Just as shocking is the willingness of police, judges and government officials to tolerate attacks on women by blaming victims and excusing offenders.

In the aftermath of the New Delhi bus attack, even as protests raged, it took days for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to go on television and promise reform. Police have been less than sympathetic. Brave demonstrators demanding better protection of women have been forcibly dispersed by officers using batons, tear gas and water cannon.

And India's Association for Democratic Reforms recently found that more than 30 men charged with rape had been allowed to stand for elected office by various political parties. The think-tank relied on court documents and election declarations for that report.

Despite the deep-seated anti-female prejudice built into Indian's justice system, outrage over recent rapes has compelled authorities to take action. The government is to open a 24-hour emergency help-line for women on Monday linked to the city's police stations. Officers have increased their patrols. Arrests have been made. And one government committee is exploring ways to speed up sex assault trials while another is looking into security flaws that may have been a factor in the bus rape.

That's good. But given India's lamentable record, it's only natural to wonder how much will really change over the long run. One thing is certain, if India is to reach its full economic potential, and hold a respected place among democracies, it will need to deliver real justice to the female half of its population.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 3, 2013 A15

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