After the fatal gang rape in New Delhi last December, a juvenile court has delivered a guilty verdict on one of the suspects on trial. Rights activist Ranjana Kumari examines how the case has affected Indian society.
DW: What impact will the first verdict on the fatal gang rape case have on Indian society?
Ranjana Kumari: The result of this trial, as well as of the trials involving the other suspects from this case, has strong implications for the way our legal system will approach rape and violence against women. The rape on December 16th had a very big impact on Indian society and brought to light the extent of gender inequality and violence against women throughout the country. This case will set a precedent on how our judiciary responds to cases of rape, particularly when the victim is murdered. It is also vital for ongoing discussions about juvenile justice.
Will the outcome of this case influence the way women are treated in India?
I do not feel that this case will affect men's treatment of women. However, the trials of the four other suspects, who are being tried as adults, could have strong implications for men's behavior towards women. If the suspects are found guilty and given long sentences or even the death penalty, this could lead to the law being regarded as a deterrent. Surety and severity of the punishment combined with a message of zero tolerance for sexual assault are the only ways to control men and boys.
There has been a rise in the number of registered rape cases in India, including those involving foreign women. What do you attribute this to?
I do not think that the rise in the number of rape cases in India is the result of men becoming more aggressive or of an increase in the actual number of sexual assaults throughout the country. I think that one of the positives aspects of the media attention on violence against women over the last six months has been increased awareness of the issue and of women's rights under the law. As a result, more women are reporting cases of rape and sexual assault to the police. Unfortunately, most women still fail to report cases of violence.
Have the public outcry and increased media attention led to women feeling safer in India?
The December 16th rape case has definitely had a big impact on India's response to women's safety. There has been a comprehensive review of legislation and police and judicial responses to violence against women. The Criminal Law Amendment Act 2013 was passed in March and is much more compressive in its approach to violence. Efforts have also been made to increase gender sensitivity within the police force and to improve responses to crimes against women. However, women's safety still remains precarious in much of India and we continue to receive cases of violence against women on a daily basis.
In order to reduce violence against women we need to address the culture of gender inequality and discrimination that is widespread in India. This means along with working with the police and judiciary, we need to educate men and women on women's rights under the law and work with communities to develop a gender-sensitive society that is underpinned by respect and equality.
Besides the safety issue, what other challenges do Indian women face?
Gender inequality remains pervasive throughout the country and Indian women face multiple forms of discrimination on a daily basis. Economic Forum's 2012 Global Gender Gap Report that assesses the gap between men and women ranked India 105 out of 135 countries.
Male preference throughout the country means that women are less educated, are more likely to be unemployed or to have insecure employment, and are more vulnerable to poverty than men. Power dynamics within the family result in women having less decision-making power, and control over their bodies and their lives. Furthermore, women are still excluded from decision-making bodies and only make up 11 percent of our parliamentarians.
Has the situation for women improved over the past years?
In spite of these ongoing challenges there are also more opportunities for Indian women, particularly those from the urban middle class. For these women society has opened doors that their mothers and grandmothers would never have thought possible. They are being educated, are joining the workforce, have increasing economic independence, and are entering into spaces that have traditionally been male-dominated. India now prides itself on having the largest number of professionally qualified women in the world and Indian women can be found in almost all professions.
These women excel as authors, actresses, political leaders, legal workers, law enforcers, sportswomen, corporate honchos, social activists, and media personnel. In 2011, both the president of the country and the speaker of the Lok Sabha were women.
So, whilst women still face a myriad of challenges and experience discrimination in all aspects of their lives, we are definitely seeing a change. This change is slow and it is not enough. But it gives us hope and motivates us to continue in our struggle for gender equality.
Dr. Ranjana Kumari is an Indian human rights activist, director of the New Delhi-based Centre for Social Research (CSR) and president of Women Power Connect (WPC), a non-profit organization focusing on gender justice.