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Rape, death and the maiden

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 13/9/2013 (1437 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Guilty, Guilty, Guilty, Guilty, trumpeted a Delhi newspaper after four slum-dwellers were convicted of the rape and murder of a student last December. The case was one of dozens of rapes reported daily. But it sparked mass protests, new laws, months of intense debate and young, educated types staging mock hangings outside the court. On Friday, the men were sentenced to death for their crime.

The victim, whose name has been withheld, was from an aspiring middle-class family, and planned a medical career. Instead, one evening she was taken from the roadside after leaving a cinema, then raped and tortured aboard a private bus. She died in hospital.

Her assailants came from a slum and had semi-casual jobs. The awfulness of the attack, including assault with a rod, guaranteed the case publicity. It also happened against a backdrop of rising anger over the routine ill-treatment of women. Still, the contrasting backgrounds of attackers and victim sustained interest in the case, reflecting wide anxiety over the rapid influx into the capital of rural migrants from other states. It is hard to imagine the level of interest in the case had the victim been a poor migrant girl.

Though statistics do not suggest notably high rates of rape in India, the figures are highly questionable. Anecdotally, almost every woman seems to have a story of being accosted, groped or worse. But Ranjana Kumari, of the Centre for Social Research in Delhi, sees progress at least in how attacks on women are discussed. A decade ago, she says, the Hindi word for rape, balatkar, was nearly taboo. Frank discussion is easier now, though she regrets an obsession with seeing young women as "pure," needing control and protection.

Too rarely is the shameful behaviour of men discussed. Strong victims are sometimes misunderstood. A photojournalist gang-raped in Mumbai in August bravely says she will keep on working. Yet politicians are more likely to lament a woman's lost "honour," or even blame the victim.

In a conservative society, where Bollywood long banned on-screen kisses, talk of sex remains difficult. "Serious fundamentalists won't allow sex education in school," Kumari complains. Prominent figures are arrested for sex crimes, yet criticism can be muted. Last month, Asaram Bapu, a Hindu guru, was charged with sexually assaulting a young follower. Kumari spoke against him but says his supporters responded with tirades.

The Delhi trial has surely helped move the debate on. Yet it was exceptional. A fast-track court held 130 hearings and saw over 100 witnesses. Other courts in India lack the resources to emulate its speed and efficiency.

More typical is what Winnie Singh experiences as head of a charity, Maitri, which helps battered women near a Delhi slum. She is used to trying to register complaints with police. That has grown easier in the past nine months, but beyond that, nothing useful happens.

Even the most determined victims soon lose faith in the legal process. A young woman who nervously describes her violent kidnap by her brothers last year says she expects no redress. Most women at Maitri give up. Singh points out it takes at least six to eight years for a case to be completed. Going to court, says one woman, is just "wasting my life."


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