One Year After Delhi Bus Rape, India Struggles to Advance Women


Monday marked one year since the horrific rape and murder of the 23-year-old physiotherapy intern in New Delhi, India. The tragedy catapulted the topic of rape into everyday Indian life and shed undeniable light on the other ways Indian society oppresses women. For the first time India, its government and its society were forced to deal with the widespread culture of subjugating women that ranges from female feticide to residual dowry customs to missing children.

For the past year, India has been scrambling to address sexual assault and promote women’s rights in face of rising rape statistics while also recoiling into conservative “family-oriented” values. And while justice for Nirbhaya (one of the many names given to the Delhi victim by the media) and other victims of rape and sexual harassment may be on the horizon, the abysmal disconnect between policy and enacting that policy leaves far too many women, particularly those in extreme poverty, hanging.

Here is a comprehensive timeline of events regarding the rape case, responses, and Indian governmental decisions regarding women, safety, and human rights.

December 16, 2012—23-year-old Nirbhaya and her 29-year-old male friend board a private bus in southern New Delhi. The bus had been illegally commandeered by six men who had beat the man with a metal rod, and raped Nirbhaya. They also used the rod to penetrate her, leaving her with critical injuries to her genitals and uterus and permanent damage to her intestines. After nearly one and a half hours, they dumped the pair on the side of the road, partially clothed.

December 21Mass protests sweep across India, demanding justice for the Nirbhaya. Protesters are met with riot police water canons, batons, and tear gas as a curfew is enacted.

December 23—Indian government appoints three-person Justice Verma Committee (JVC) to recommend changes to criminal law to more effectively address rape.

December 24Three police officers are suspended for negligence after it is discovered they dismissed a man who was picked up, robbed by, and dropped off by the same six men just before Nirbhaya and her friend boarded the same bus.

December 29—Nirbhaya dies of injuries in a Singapore hospital, sparking more protests.

January 3, 2013—Charges filed against 5 suspects (the sixth is deemed a minor).

January 10—Defendants’ lawyer announces they will plead not guilty to all charges, claims the victim and her friend were responsible. In an interview, he states, “Until today I have not seen a single incident or example of rape with a respected lady…Even an underworld don would not like to touch a girl with respect.”

January 23—JVC submits report/recommendations to the government. The report highlights the need for judicial support like guaranteeing a speedy trial and extra judges in rape cases, reforms in police/armed forces handling of sexual assault victims, and addressing the general apathy of civil society regarding sexual assault victims. It also calls for a proper medical examination standard as well as infrastructure like street lighting to promote women’s safety.

February 3Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, based on JVC reports is enacted. It includes recommendations including new forms of assault on women like acid attacks, sexual harassment, voyeurism, and stalking. While it goes beyond the recommendations to include capital punishment for rapes that lead to death or a “persistent vegetative state, it leaves out other essential recommendations from the report—it defines rape as a crime that can only be committed by a man on a woman and fails to criminalize marital rape.

February 5—Trial of the five adult defendants begins.

February 28—$150 million Nirbhaya Fund is established in 2013 Union Budget. It is aimed to support initiatives that will ensure women’s safety, but to this day the budget remains untouched.

March 11—Ram Singh, one of the five adult suspects, is found hanged in his jail cell.

March 12Anti-rape law delayed as ministers debate whether the age of consent should be 16 or 18 years of age and whether to use “rape” or “sexual assault” in the language of the law.

March 18—SafeCity, an app that allows women in India to share the locations of the harassment they face, communally creating a map of harassment “hotspots” launches.

April 23The President passes Sexual Harassment of Woman at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act, which had been in the works since 2007. It establishes a clearer definition of sexual harassment, more formal complaint redress system with fines, and includes more types of work settings, including domestic help. However, it also penalizes false complaints (or complaints that cannot be proven) and does not include project workers

May 1—UN Special Rapporteur Rashida Manjoo pens report regarding state of women in India. The report commends India’s legal measures taken in response to the Delhi rape, but urges the government to take violence against women in all spheres including, public spaces, in the family or in the workplace, more seriously. It emphasizes the risks that befall Dalit (lowest, “untouchable” caste) women in particular.

May 28—Mumbai municipal council attempts to fight rape culture by banning mannequins in lingerie stores as the scantily clad mannequins incite “impure thoughts” in men.

July 8—The Delhi bus gang rape trial is closed. Verdict to be announced July 26.

July 16—Ban on dance bars in is lifted after 8 years. The ban left an estimated 75,000 and 40% of dancers were forced into prostitution.

August 31—Juvenile suspect convicted of rape and murder. Sentenced to 3 years in a probation home, the maximum sentence for a minor.

September 10—After months of delay, the four adult defendants are found guilty of rape and murder.

September 13—The four men are sentenced to death by hanging.

October 12—Delhi cracks down on sex toys under law that provides punishment for sale of ‘obscene’ materials.

November 19She-Taxi, taxi service with all women drivers for only women clients launches in Kerala, a southern state of India.

December 11—Delhi high court reinstates colonial-era ban on gay sex.

December 13—The aforementioned Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act goes into effect

Unfortunately, given the size of India, the limits of legislative and judicial powers (further weakened by widespread corruption), and the persistent disregard of lower-class women in an increasingly conservative environment, India’s legal response to sexual assault and the disparity in women’s rights will largely be paralyzed.

India’s quick action and timely changes to the criminal law is surely commendable, however passing a law does not guarantee action. India’s court system is absolutely inundated with cases while also being severely short-staffed for the population of 1.23 billion. The court system is said to be backlogged for 466 years, working with an average of 14 judges per one million people. And while India has introduced a fast track court system, which allowed the Delhi gang rape defendants to be convicted and sentenced so quickly, it also runs the risk of skipping over technicalities and rushing to a decision, resulting in possible miscarriages of justice. As The Guardian reports, of the 706 rape cases filed in India in 2012, only one ended in conviction: Nirbhaya’s. So of all the potential cases that could have been the subject of so much protest and attention, of all the cases that could have been taken to court, why hers?

While the sheer inhumane brutality of the incident absolutely played a role, India’s intense reaction also lies in the identity of the victim, a young, educated, woman from the middle class. As a fast-growing contender in the global economy, India is fairly new to the idea of the middle class and its power as both a consumer economy and a political voice. The attack on Nirbhaya was an attack on the face of this new Indian identity. And the government’s response reflects that.

The government response and safeguards presume the victims have a certain means. The phone hotlines, apps, SOS buttons on phones for women in distress, all-women taxi services, all-women banks are geared towards women who actually have access to these amenities in the first place. Meanwhile, millions of women in rural areas or Dalit women who live in extreme poverty are still unaffected by these improvements—they remain untouchable. So yes, rape is officially an issue that is discussed in India, which is an incredible step forward, but unfortunately it remains a middle class problem in the eyes of the government. And as politics becomes more conservative, the idea of what constitutes a rape or sexual assault or sexual harassment victim will only continue to narrow.

This is indicated by the fact that rape is defined as something only a man can enact on a woman as well as the government’s refusal to acknowledge marital rape as a concept because “[i]f marital rape is brought under the law, the entire family system will be under great stress.” And of course recriminalizing gay sex is just another step in promoting the values of the Indian family system in a conservative atmosphere.

There is, however, a rising voice against the conservative trend. Women’s rights and feminist groups are finally gaining traction necessary to fight against India’s attitudes towards women. A recent initiative, The Delhi Womanifesto has come to light, demanding that political candidates should commit to enforcing a six point plan to protect women and girls in Delhi. Backed by over 50 women’s rights activists and organizations and Chief Minister Sheila Dixit, the Delhi Womanifesto promotes education, legal action plans, police reform, competent courts, survivor support, and more infrastructure to build a safer city.

Clearly, India has a long way to go to ensure the safety of women, and the reality of a consummate system that leaves no woman unsupported is bleak. The subjugation of women’s rights is deeply embedded in the cultural and family system, propagated by continuously conservative policies. And while the brutal rape and murder of Nirbhaya finally burst open the endemic devaluing and lack of support for women, unfortunately India’s largely immobilized legal system will leave far too many behind. But there is hope in India’s women’s rights movements and protesters—while Nirbhaya may have been the face of the middle class woman wronged, India’s protesters certainly are the voice of the middle class people wronged. Hopefully they will make space for and fight with those with less resources and purchasing power who face the same, if not worse, circumstances in pursuit of recognition and justice.

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