Despite India stiffening its laws on sexual crimes, nothing much has changed on the ground. A rash of sexual assaults recently once again sparked intense discussion about attitudes towards women. Murali Krishnan reports.
Crimes against women in India, including rape, molestation and abuse, have gone up in recent months and the spate of high-profile sexual attacks in the nation's big cities bears testimony to this spiraling yet disturbing graph.
Last week, a famous actress from southern India who has acted in over 70 films was allegedly raped inside her moving car while she was headed for the port city of Kochi from her home in Thrissur. The culprits, including her former driver, further took compromising pictures and videos of her.
The case caused an uproar across the country, with many calling for swift and stringent punishment for the accused.
Delhi, which has already earned the dubious tag of the "rape capital," was also shaken by an alarming incident over the weekend when a 24-year-old woman was raped in an upscale region of the city by a man who offered her a ride after a party. The woman, who is from the northeastern state of Nagaland, was alone and walking home when the incident occurred. Figures show that Delhi reports on average six rapes every day.
Delhi, however, is not alone in reporting such cases.
Recently, a 17-year-old girl was dragged into a car in an upmarket residential locality of Bhopal in the central state of Madhya Pradesh and sexually tortured for over an hour as she was driven up and down the same road that thousands of commuters take every day.
If that was not enough, earlier this month, two persons were arrested in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, for sexually assaulting a mentally-challenged 14-year-old girl.
"Women's vulnerability varies enormously across states in the country. Besides, poor conviction rates have only seen a rapid rise in gender violence," says lawyer Vrinda Grover.
Just early this year, scores of young women were groped and molested by a mob of men during New Year's Eve celebrations in the southern city of Bangalore in an incident that numbed and shamed the country.
Systemic changes required
Such incidents have underscored the ugly history of violence against women in the South Asian country. Data released by India's National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), a government agency, for the year 2015 highlight the dismal level of safety enjoyed by Indian women.
From rapes, incest, sexual assaults and more violent crimes to abductions and trafficking of women, the report only sends out one strong message - India is as unsafe as ever.
The total reported incidences of rape were at a staggering 34,651. Many believe the real figure is much higher as many cases go unreported due to the prevailing social stigma and a lack of adequate support for victims.
The northern state of Uttar Pradesh, where women's safety is a major issue in the ongoing elections, tops the list as the most unsafe place to be a woman, being home to nearly 11 percent of India's total crimes against women.
West Bengal comes a close second with 10.1 percent, trailed by Maharashtra and Rajasthan with 9.5 percent and 8.6 percent of cases respectively.
Ajay Kumar, a former police officer who has dealt with sexual crimes, says police reforms need to be expedited to counter the problem.
"If you catch a person molesting a girl and convict him, you are actually preventing a future rapist. You need to make police reforms urgent, make registration of First Information Reports easier and fast track cases. What's more you need to convict people quickly on scientific evidence," Kumar underlines.
Civil rights groups and independent researchers also feel that deterioration of governance and persistence of low sex ratios in certain states contribute to escalation of such crimes.
A social problem
In India, rape is as much a social problem as it's criminal. It's a subject still shrouded in shame and stigma in a country governed by conventional patriarchy - which means women who have suffered sexual attacks still hesitate to report it to the police for fear of retribution and social isolation.
But a movement has begun to reclaim safe public spaces for women, especially in big cities. The hash tag #IWillGoOut, which began as a Facebook phenomenon, has grown into a national campaign in the wake of multiple incidents of molestation in Bangalore during New Year's Eve.
Kalpana Viswanath, a researcher working on issues of women's safety explains the phenomenon.
"In India the whole sort of change - in terms of more and more women being seen in public, taking up jobs and using public spaces as well as claiming their right to be in public spaces - is creating a backlash against women," she says.
Clearly, a lot still needs to be done to make women feel safe in the country, as there has been little progress made in addressing the attitudes that legitimize violence and discrimination against women.
Instances of acid attacks, which form a part of sexual violence, have been reported in nearly all parts of the world, but they are particularly endemic to South Asia, especially India.
Estimates suggest more than a 1,000 acid attacks a year take place in India, and in almost all these cases men carry out the attacks and women are the victims.
The issue of sexual violence received increased attention in India following the fatal gang rape of a Delhi student in late 2012 that grabbed international headlines and turned focus on the issue of gender equality in the world's largest democracy.
But several years after that tragic incident that convulsed Indian society, safe spaces for women are still a long way off.