Every 22 minutes a woman is raped in India, according to government statistics. Until recently, the problem had been widely ignored – not only by the police but also by the judiciary and the media. Then, in December 2012, a 23-year-old student was gang-raped on a bus in New Delhi and died a few days later. Thousands of people took to the streets in nationwide protests, calling the victim "the daughter of the entire nation". Her death sparked international outrage.
Much has changed since. Harsher laws against rape have been implemented; the topic of sexual violence against women – once a taboo – is now widely covered in the media. New police units dedicated to helping women were introduced. However, the core of the problem remains untouched – as further high-profile-cases have shown.
Lawyer and human rights activist Vrinda Grover says in a DW interview that the reasons for this lie in the fact that very few cases reach the courtroom for prosecution, as the highest level of attrition takes place at the police station where victims are discouraged and intimidated from pressing charges.
DW: India's top court recently suspended the death sentences of the two of the four adult convicts in the 2012 Delhi gang rape case. Was that surprising, or is it standard procedure?
Vrinda Grover: It is important to know that the execution of the other two accused in the same case had earlier been stayed, so it was very much expected that the other two death sentences would also be stayed. I think it is a very good sign, and I do hope that the Supreme Court will continue with the legal doctrine followed in India of deciding which cases should be given the death penalty. We do not think that awarding the death sentence to men is in any way going to change the conditions of women's life in India.
We think there should be proper investigations, a short conviction, and the legal system needs to be sensitive and accessible for women. The death sentence is not something that we are at all in favor of.
Stricter laws and other changes were introduced after the fatal gang rape of the female student in December 2012. Were they enough?
What we have seen is very useful and important. Much needed legal changes were introduced, particularly regarding the definition of sexual crimes, being it the offense of rape, or stalking, voyeurism or parading or disrobing women. The substantive law has been changed in a positive way: the definition of consent has now been articulated very explicitly, so that unless it is very clear from words or gestures that the woman is consenting, it cannot be imputed through her conduct or otherwise.
However, what we find is that procedural law is still lacking. And the system, whether at the police station or in the courtroom remains extremely hostile and harsh, working as a deterrent for women to access justice.
In early July, a threat by an Indian MP to rape and kill opposition activists sparked national outrage. How is change possible when representatives in the national or local governments express such viewpoints?
It is one of the biggest horrors: we have an entire political class, and we have the dominant cast-and-class-syndrome, which actually refuses to allow women to live as equal citizens in the country. The issue of violence against women is instrumentalized by all political parties during election time, or to slam other outfits when they are caught in a row. However, in the political class there is no understanding of equality, of freedom of women, nor is there an understanding or acceptance that women have a right to dignity and physical integrity.
Women continue to be seen both as subordinates as well as playthings to be used, bodies to be targeted during communal riots or political disputes. This is one of the biggest problems that we have. And the bias that we see here actually flows into the criminal justice system right from the police station up to the courtroom.
Just recently, rape in India has been on the news again: in May, two low-caste girls aged 12 and 14 were found hanging from a tree in the state of Uttar Pradesh after they had been abducted and gang-raped. What do you make of this?
In the rape-and-murder-case of the two young girls, it is a very serious concern that India's premier investigating agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), is not actually tracking or pursuing the case in a diligent manner. What it is doing is putting out press releases causing a lot of alarm and concern. We do know that the accused are socially, economically and politically powerful, compared to the victim's families. And now there is some talk about conducting another autopsy and an exhumation, although the post-mortem-reports, which I have personally seen and studied, clearly show that there are signs of sexual violence and use of force on the young girls' private parts.
I am very worried that the CBI is perhaps trying to derail the investigation in some manner, so even with cases that attract global attention, on the ground, what we see is that the judicial processes do not move ahead.
Do you give the Indian government and the police any credit for making a serious attempt to improve the situation?
There is no attempt by the police or the government: all the changes have happened because the people, particularly the women and the youth of this country have sought those changes. The government continues to pay only lip-service. In fact, the new government came to power with promises of good governance and safety for women. In its cabinet today sits a minister who has been summoned by a court for rape, sexual assault and sexual exploitation of a woman. And despite our repeated demands, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not asked that cabinet minister to step down from his position. What signal is the Indian government sending to the women of this country?
As far as the police are concerned, they continue to be a problem - perhaps the biggest problem – when it comes to access to justice. They continue to think that violence against women is not a crime. They condone it, they sanction it, they look at the girl or the woman herself - her character, her conduct, her lifestyle - as being responsible for such a heinous crime. Moreover, no professional or competent investigations are carried out, which leads to very failed and poor prosecutions.
The number of women reporting sexual violence has risen dramatically, which means that women are breaking out of the culture of silence and of shame. Women and families no longer attach stigma to sexual violence. However, very few cases reach the courtroom for prosecution, because the highest level of attrition takes place at the police station. There they are discouraged and intimidated, and then the investigation is done in either a corrupt or mollified manner to not allow the case to reach the courtroom.
In fact, very prominent cases are not being prosecuted. I am handling a case of a gang-rape of seven Muslim women during communal riots in November 2013, again in the State of Uttar Pradesh. However, in this case, not one charge sheet has been filed, although the first information reports (a formal complaint with the police) were lodged. Although they were lodged in November 2013, the police are not letting the cases proceed.
One-and-a-half years have passed since the gang-rape of the student in Delhi took place and attracted international attention. How has it impacted Indian society?
I think very radical and fundamental changes have taken place. The issue of violence against women can no longer be denied. It is central to the public discourse in India. Earlier, there was a denial and a silence that shrouded the issue. That has been shattered forever. Women are no longer keeping quiet, they are asserting their rights, and seeking justice. Having said that, the resistance and the backlash continues, and systems, which are supposed to provide support and justice, keep resisting this. That is where we stand today in India.
Vrinda Grover is an Indian lawyer and human rights activist based in New Delhi.