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Nirbhaya rape 10 years on: Any changes for women in India?

Murali Krishnan in New Delhi
December 16, 2022

The battle for women's justice in India is far from won. Women's groups and activists say incidents of rape have become more rampant, "more aggressive" and "more brutalized."

Women protesters hold sign which reads "Tomorrow is too late, stand up for women today"
Crimes against women in India increased by over 19% in 2021 when compared to 2020Image: Danish Siddiqui/REUTERS

Jyoti Singh, a 23-year-old  physiotherapy trainee, – who became known across the globe as 'Nirbhaya' (meaning "fearless") – was fatally gang raped in a moving bus by six men in south Delhi on December 16, 2012. She died a fortnight later. Nirbhaya became a symbol of India's fight against sexual violence.

As the nation marks 10 years since her assault and murder, citizens nationwide are questioning just how much has changed for sexual assault victims and women's safety in India.

"In the last 10 years, we do not think anybody except Nirbhaya got justice. No change has come," Nirbhaya's mother, Asha Devi, told local reporters. "One positive change is that more sexual assault survivors are now speaking out."

Prominent Indian lawyer and activist Indira Jaising warns rape cases across India has become "more aggressive" in the last decade.

"I would describe what happened in 2012 as an atrocity not just a rape. What I'm noticing is greater and greater numbers of not just rape but gang rape," Jaisingh told DW.

"The nature of rape itself is changing in this country in the last 10 years. It's become more aggressive. It's become more brutalized. It's become more of a form of vigilantism and gangsterism," she said.

How much has changed?

The brutal rape of Nirbhaya prompted thousands of women and men to march in the heart of New Delhi in 2012, braving water cannons and police batons to demand justice.

A year after the murder, India's rape law was amended by expanding the definition of sexual assault, increasing the punishment for rape, discontinuing the unscientific "two-finger test" on rape survivors, and instituting measures to make it easier and quicker to file a police complaint.

But despite the new measures, crimes against women in India increased by over 19% in 2021 when compared to 2020, according to recently-released National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) data.

Last year, police recorded 31,878 rapes (around 87 rape cases per day on average) — a steep rise from the previous year of 28,153 cases.

"In the decade since, data has recorded a rise in numbers not just of rape but also of all crimes against women," Namita Bhandare, a Delhi-based independent journalist who covers gender issues, told DW. "There are plenty of laws that don't work on the ground," she added.

Delhi reported the highest cases of rape among 19 cities. The NCRB report stated that 1,226 rape cases were registered in the national capital last year. It is the only metropolitan city that registered more than 1,000 rape cases.

"We can no longer deny that there is such a high rate of sexual violence against women in our midst, we were living in denial. That silence has been broken," lawyer Vrinda Grover told DW.

International charity Oxfam pointed out in a report last year that funds earmarked for setting up rape helplines, opening crisis centers and introducing gender-sensitization training for officials remain unspent.

The Indian government set up the Nirbhaya Fund with the aim of enhancing the safety and security of women following the 2012 bus gang rape, but campaigners said pledges for gender justice have not been met. By Oxfam's calculations, the Nirbhaya Fund is underfunded — it needs $1.3 billion (€1.22 billion) to allow 60% of women dealing with any form of violence to be able to access services.

Rape cases among Dalit women see 45% rise

India saw a 45% increase in reported rapes of Dalit (traditionally positioned on the bottom rung of a centuries-old discriminatory caste system) women and girls between 2015 and 2020, according to the NCRB. The data said 10 rapes of Dalit women and girls were reported every day in India, on average.

The true figure is likely to be much higher, as many such crimes go unreported due to fear of reprisal or intimidation by police.

Three states — Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan — reported more than half of the cases of crimes against Dalit women and girls.

Protesters condemn the alleged gang rape and killing of a Dalit woman in Mumbai in October 2020
Protesters condemn the alleged gang rape and killing of a Dalit woman in Mumbai in October 2020Image: Rajanish Kakade/AP Photo/picture alliance

According to the National Family Health Survey 2015-2016, sexual violence rates were the highest among women from Scheduled Tribes (Adivasi or Indigenous Indians) at 7.8%, followed by Scheduled Castes (Dalits) at 7.3%, and Otherwise Backward Castes (OBCs) at 5.4%, the report reads. The rate was 4.5% for women who were not marginalized by caste or tribe.

'By justice we mean convictions'

Despite an increase in the number of reported rape cases and more women speaking out, the conviction rate in the country remains poor. In many cases, lack of proof is often cited as a reason for the low conviction rate or for convictions being overturned by higher courts.

Tackling violence against women in India

The NCRB report states that the conviction rate of rape cases stood at 28.6% in 2021, which means that out of 100 accused, not even 30 received a conviction.

According to lawyer Grover, in many rural pockets, investigation into rape cases still lack proper supervision and prosecution. She also said women in general face prejudice in rape trial processes.  

"The acquittals are a sign that the legal system is yet not accessible, it’s a sign that the legal system will need to work much more to make it deliver justice and by justice we mean convictions," said Grover.

Edited by: Sou-Jie van Brunnersum 

Murali Krishnan
Murali Krishnan Journalist based in New Delhi, focusing on Indian politics, society and business@mkrish11