'It could've been me': India women demand safety as recent rapes prompt hundreds of petitions

by Roli Srivastava | @Rolionaroll | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 13 December 2019 05:29 GMT

Protestors wearing blindfolds take part in a protest in solidarity with rape victims and to oppose violence against women in India, in New Delhi, India December 7, 2019. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

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Students, activists and the mother of a student who was gang raped and killed on a bus in New Delhi in 2012, have joined the rising number of petitioners calling for action from authorities

By Roli Srivastava

MUMBAI, Dec 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Aila Bandagi Kandlakunta's first reaction to the gang rape and murder of a female veterinarian last month in India's IT hub of Hyderabad that sparked massive protests across the country was that of many Indian women: "It has happened again".

After being "disturbed" for days, the 24-year-old this week started an online petition, one of about 500 set up on website Change.org with millions of signatures in the last two weeks demanding safe streets, helplines, justice and sensitive police.

Students, activists and the mother of a 23-year-old student who was gang raped and killed on a bus in New Delhi in 2012, have joined the rising number of petitioners calling for action from authorities, from local police to the prime minister.

"Unfortunately, we need something like this (the rape) to shake us to seek change," Kandlakunta, who commuted on the stretch where the rape was committed, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

She said every time the media reported such crimes, people called for the death penalty for those responsible.

"But no one addresses the basic issues that are a threat to women's safety on streets on a daily basis," said Kandlakunta, who petitioned to "light up Hyderabad" with more street lights and ensuring pedestrian safety.

Massive protests were reported in several parts of India after the charred body of a veterinarian was found near Hyderabad last month.

Days later, a 23-year-old rape victim died in a hospital in New Delhi after she was set on fire by a gang of men, including her alleged rapist.

Instances of brutal rape and violence against women who report it have given India the reputation of being one of the worst places to be female, coming first in a Thomson Reuters Foundation 2018 survey on the most dangerous nations for women.

TACKLING DELAY, APATHY

India recorded more than 32,500 cases of rape in 2017, about 90 a day, according to the most recent government data.

But Indian courts dealt with about 18,300 rape cases, with more than 127,800 cases pending at the end of 2017.

"You can tell the mood of the nation just by looking at the recent petitions tab on our homepage," said Nida Hasan, country director, Change.org India.

"Change.org recorded about 500 petitions following the Hyderabad vet's rape and murder with over 1.5 million signatures on the top five petitions," she said.

Seven years after her daughter was gang raped and murdered on a bus in New Delhi, a crime that led to national outrage, Asha Devi on Thursday started an online petition seeking speedy trials of cases of crimes against women.

"I know what all these victims' families are going through ... I want the government to know that we are not alone," she said in her petition that garnered over 80,000 signatures within hours of it going online on Change.org.

"If we want to erase the tag of being an "unsafe nation" for women where pre-meditated rape, brutality and murder are becoming the dangerous norm, then we must deliver justice to Nirbhaya," she said in her petition.

Four men who were convicted for Asha Devi's daughter's rape and murder are on death row pending appeals.

Another petition by Instagram influencer Saloni Chopra asked authorities to ensure Nirbhaya funds - a government fund named after Asha Devi's daughter - were used to beef up security.

"This shouldn't be an event that we just forget and move on from, till the next brutal gang rape," wrote Chopra in her petition. "That girl could've been me."

Among the success stories of previous Change.org petitions are those that have led to promises of safer streets in Delhi, removal of plastic cups by a national airline, and promises to make a girl's character stronger in a children's cartoon show.

A petition following the rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl in Kathua in Kashmir in 2018 - that also led to widespread protests - had nearly 2 million signatures, becoming the biggest petition in the website's India history.

But online activism must be accompanied with offline efforts to change policy or mindsets, said Sameera Khan, co-author of "Why Loiter? Women & Risk on Mumbai Streets", a book about women's access to public space.

"The petition on improving lighting on the streets of Hyderabad makes an excellent and valid point," Khan said.

"It would be great if the petition is followed up by setting up meetings with the Hyderabad mayor and the relevant municipal authority as well." (Reporting by Roli Srivastava @Rolionaroll; Editing by Belinda Goldsmith Please credit Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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