Senior Research Fellow, Asia Programme

The horrific rape and subsequent death of a young woman in Delhi has sparked the latest bout of popular outrage in India. As with the ongoing anti-corruption protests, there is a strong sense that something needs to be done. But while the end-points for both campaigns are clear-cut - ending both corruption and violence against women - the means of achieving this are less well-defined.

While there are women in highly prominent positions in politics, business and the media, figures for female infanticide point to the secondary status granted to women among large sections of the population. In Delhi, according to the 2011 census, there are only 866 women for every 1,000 men. In some nearby states the ratios of girls to boys under five shows an even sharper disparity. And the female-male ratio has fallen over the past decade despite numerous schemes to encourage families to have girls. As well as demonstrating the relative value of girls vis-à-vis boys, the apparent scale of female infanticide leads in turn to a shortage of girls; many young men will find it increasingly hard to find women to marry in years to come.

At the same time, India is enjoying strong, urban-dominated economic growth. Millions of migrants, often single men, are flooding to Delhi and other urban centres in search of work. There follows a potential clash between village mentalities and more emancipated ideas. These two trends may take many years to evolve. And yet the protests in Delhi could trigger positive change.

Strength of the reaction

The first question to consider is why this incident in particular has triggered such widespread uproar. Indian newspapers are full of stories of violence against women and public reaction is generally muted. A convergence of factors have contributed to the strength of public opinion in this case. First, the brutality of the attack and its circumstances would seem to prevent the sense (not confined to India) that the victim was in some way responsible for the attack. Second, the fact that the bus appears to have been unlicensed and had driven past several police checkpoints while the attack was on-going, play into the prevalent narratives among urban middle class Indians that the state is incompetent and corrupt. Third, because government is widely seen as incompetent there is a growing feeling, witnessed in the anti-corruption campaign, that concerned citizens need to make their demands heard more vociferously.

Beyond that, other societal forces are slightly more positive. Officially, the number of rapes in Delhi rose by around 16% to 661 in 2012, but while these figures are likely to significantly underestimate the scale of the problem, the rise could perhaps indicate an increased willingness to report sexual crimes. 

Tipping point?

If there is to be a positive longer-term outcome, it is likely to come from changes in procedures dealing with rape: if the trial of the accused attackers can be ‘fast-tracked’, why shouldn't all rape cases, protestors ask. Rape is a bailable offence, and many cases drag on for years before coming to court. Were this change to be implemented, it would send out a positive signal. Several states have already indicated their intention to speed up rape cases. 

However, on its own this is unlikely to be enough. Questions will remain until the authorities demonstrate a commitment to deal with politically-influential figures also accused of rape. Furthermore, conviction rates are staggeringly low. Only one out of 635 rapes reported in Delhi in 2012 ended in a conviction, according to reports. 

India is undergoing unprecedented social change, and traditional social systems are rapidly breaking down, particularly in urban India. The inability of its legal system to step in and take the place of traditional systems is one of the factors coming under scrutiny in relation to the December attack. If steps are taken to expedite the legal process and increase conviction rates, and if the December attack plays some role in changing attitudes towards violence against women, then perhaps something positive will have come from the death of a young woman.

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