India gang rape verdict doesn't bring closure

by Nita Bhalla | @nitabhalla | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 20 September 2013 14:26 GMT

Demonstrators shout slogans during a candlelight vigil after four men convicted of raping and murdering a 23-year-old woman in Delhi were sentenced to death September 13, 2013. REUTERS/Mansi Thapliyal

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Many call her "India's daughter" - symbolising the fact she could have been any one of us in this country where women constantly risk verbal, physical or sexual abuse

NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In life she had one name. But in death she has many.

Some call her "Nirbhaya" meaning fearless in Hindi, others refer to her as "Amanat" meaning treasure or "Damini" meaning lightening.

Many in the Indian media just call her "India's Braveheart" or "India's daughter" - symbolising the fact that she could have been any one of us. Any woman or girl in this country, where the threat of abuse - verbal, physical or sexual - is horrifyingly real.

On that night of December 16, six assailants raped her on a bus as it moved through the streets of New Delhi. They tortured her with an iron rod, stripped her naked, dragged her by the hair and threw her out onto the road in the cold.

Two weeks later, she died in a Singapore hospital.

The injuries done to her internal organs were irreparable, doctors said.

There is no way to be subtle about what has come to be known in India and across the world as the "Delhi gang rape".

Its savagery sent a chill down our spines, shook our consciousness - forcing thousands onto streets in cities across India to protest for days demanding an end to rising violence against women.

The crime, and the social uprising it created, resonated across the world and dominated international headlines, highlighting that sexual violence is not just an Indian problem but a global one.

Nine months on, four of the six assailants have been sentenced to death for committing a crime which Judge Yogesh Khanna said was a “demonstration of exceptional depravity and extreme brutality”.

One of the accused committed suicide in jail, while the other who was 17 at the time of the crime was tried as a juvenile and is serving three years in a correctional home.


Covering the story over the last nine months, I watched the outrage unfold, spreading from a largely student and activist-led movement to one where the wider public became involved.

I met school children, tea-sellers, businessmen, nurses, housewives, auto-rickshaw drivers who for days in late December carried placards calling for justice for the young woman and held candlelight vigils as she battled for life in a New Delhi hospital.

I witnessed the government's knee-jerk reaction in the days of the demonstrations, first not addressing the protesters’ concerns and then clamping down heavily, resulting in violence.

And I reported on the many promises and pledges that were made by authorities in the aftermath.

A tough new "anti-rape law" has been enacted allowing for death to be handed down to repeat rape offenders. It also criminalises voyeurism and stalking and makes acid attacks and human trafficking specific offences.

Fast-track courts are also being set up to speedily try gender crimes, safer public spaces are to be created, more women will be recruited into the police force and a "Nirbhaya" fund established to help compensate victims and improve safety for women.

These are important measure if implemented well, but even so, stop drastically short of what is needed if we want to end what some activists call India's "rape epidemic" - where a rape occurs every 21 minutes.

The new law punishes rapists, but it fails to criminalise husbands who rape their wives, or soldiers who rape local women, or ban parliamentarians facing rape charges from serving in the assembly.

The $186 milion Nirbhaya fund is grossly inadequate to support victims and ensure better infrastructure for women's security such as street lighting and proper transportation.

Authorities failed to examine the issue of introducing sex education in schools which would not only help children understand their bodies, but also feel more confident about reporting abuse.

They failed to push through the women's reservation bill - which would guarantee women a third of the seats in parliament, bringing a female voice which would address legislation through a gender lens

And talk has even died on reforming the archaic, under-resourced, gender-insensitive and painfully slow police and judicial system, which repeatedly fails victims seeking justice.

But while India's establishment and institutions haven't provided the positive signals hoped for, urban populations have become more sensitive and there is certainly more discussion around rape than ever before.

With media stepping up their coverage on gender crimes, television talk shows and debates, and now Bollywood films being made on rape, Indians are talking about an issue which was previously really only debated between academics, feminists and civil society groups.


For many, there is now a sense of closure with the verdict. The four are expected to be hanged and our "Nirbhaya" will get justice.

Yet for others, like me, there is none.

While we have focused on the issue of rape and sexual violence in India over the last nine months, we have failed to see it as wider issue about the deeply-entrenched patriarchal views which lie at the heart of all abuses against women.

It is not just about rape.

It's about the discrimination a girl is faced with even before she is born, where she is at threat of being aborted simply because of her gender.

It is about the prejudices she faces as she grows up - with preference given to her male siblings when it comes to food, health, education and freedom of movement.

It is about the fact that over 40 percent of India's girls are married as child brides and that even after marriage one woman is murdered every hour due to demands for dowry.

It is about the girls who are not allowed to go on to secondary school because at the end of the day, her community believes her role is to be a wife and child bearer.

It is about the low caste widow who is branded a witch and lynched in her village so that others can take her land.

It is about the woman walking to work in the city who gets acid thrown in her face by two assailants on a motorbike for not giving in to her stalkers’ harassment.

We have failed to broaden the debate to look at empowering girls and women from the start, educating our society in schools and through massive spending in public awareness campaigns on gender equality and not enforcing the laws we have enacted to protect our women.

The end of the Delhi gang rape case will not bring closure, but if India continues this conversation, then perhaps it will be the beginning of the end. 

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