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Defenseless women

Priya Esselborn / gd
January 16, 2014

The latest rape cases involving foreign women in India have cast the country's record on sexual violence back into the spotlight. Violence against women is entrenched in Indian society. There are many reasons for this.

Anti-rape protesters at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi, India on January 01, 2013. (Photo by IANS/ABACAUSA.COM)
Image: picture alliance/abaca
A 51-year-old Danish tourist was recently gang-raped near a popular shopping area in New Delhi after she got lost and approached a group of men for directions back to her hotel, according to police. Just a few days earlier, an 18-year-old German charity worker said she had been assaulted by a fellow passenger on a train in southern India. The attacker is believed to be a migrant worker from the northern state of Bihar.

The two recent cases have highlighted once again the issue of violence against women in India. The rapes come more than a year after another rape case sent shock waves across India and triggered massive protests.

According to police reports, a 23-year-old female physiotherapy student and her male companion were coaxed by six men into boarding an off-duty bus they thought would take them home after watching a movie at a shopping mall in New Delhi. The men savagely beat the man and repeatedly raped the woman, inflicting massive internal injuries with an iron rod. The victims were then dumped naked on the roadside. The woman died of injuries two weeks later in a Singapore hospital.

Demonstrators shout slogans during a protest outside police headquarters in New Delhi April 20, 2013. (Photo: Reuters)
The brutal crimes prompted protests across IndiaImage: Reuters

While four of the accused were sentenced to death by a fast-track court ten months later, the teenage defendant was sentenced to only three years in a correctional facility. The sixth suspect, the reported ringleader and regular driver of the bus, died in jail in an apparent suicide.

While it is difficult to pinpoint the actual source of the problem, Indologist Renate Syed from Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich attributes it in part to how women are viewed in society. She explains that there is a long tradition of female subordination in India that can be traced back to ancient texts. She examines discrimination against women in ancient and modern India in her book "The daughter is misfortune."

"A woman has always been considered the property of her husband," she says. "Only a man is seen as a creature of reason. Women are always considered unreasonable." Thus women have always had to be controlled by men and this continues today. "Women are not allowed to construct their own identity. Women are always seen as the daughter of a man or the wife of a man. Their autonomy is taken away from them."

A country in transformation

India has witnessed a huge economic boom and is going through a rapid modernization process. Moreover, it is a nuclear power. The government is so confident that it has demanded a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. The glamorous metropolises of Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata reflect the new face of the country.

However, two thirds of the population still lives in rural areas, where agriculture is the main source of income for most and where there is sometimes no running water or electricity.

Large parts of the population feel excluded from India's transformation. There is concern among many experts that the gap between the poor and the rich is widening. "The frustration in society is becoming increasingly intense," says Delhi-based women's rights activist Urvashi Bhutalia.

However, she blames the violence on lacunae in the legal system. "Anyone can see it's not working. The police are sometimes corrupt. Sometimes they do not live up to their responsibilities." The police are accused of protecting rapists when an influential or wealthy person is involved. It can take years for a woman to prove she was raped and for a case to come to court. It is a costly, nerve-racking process.

Traditions persist

Another problem for Indian women is the dowry that a bride's family has to pay when she is married. Although the Hindu custom has officially been banned, it persists because a bride's family would otherwise lose face. In some regions, especially Punjab and Haryana in the north, there has been an increase in the abortion of female fetuses; a way to avoid paying a dowry is to not have daughters.

Discrimination against those girls who are born begins early. Studies have found that many women breastfeed their sons longer than their daughters. Moreover, a boy is much more likely to be sent to school than a girl if there are several children.

The government has introduced measures to improve the education of girls and women. The literacy rate has gone up from 48 percent in 2001 to 65.4 percent today for women, but it is still much higher for men.

'Easy victims'

Renate Syed says that young girls especially are "easy victims." "Children are on the streets, they can be grabbed. And small girls are often intimidated because they are brought up to behave traditionally and to regard men as the authority."

Nonetheless, she also says it is important not to exaggerate. "These awful [rape] cases are giving the wrong impression that this is happening in India in a disproportionate manner. That is not the case, however."

Indian women travel inside a "Women Only" metro train compartment (AP Photo/Yirmiyan Arthur)
The Delhi Metro has special women-only carriagesImage: picture-alliance/AP

Urvashi Bhutalia says there are some positive signs that society is changing for the better. There is now a societal debate about rape, she points out, and more cases are being reported now than in the past. She also says that a recently-introduced law is a good first step.

However, real change will only be made possible through education, she insists. "At village level, women's quotas in the councils have already made a difference. This is urgently needed at national level." She and other women's rights activists in India are well aware that the process will be long and drawn-out.

This is an updated version of the original article, published on April 25, 2013.

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