Why another high profile rape case in India will fail to tackle the causes of sexual violence

“The trial in the Mumbai gang-rape case has opened to a drowsy and ill-attended courtroom, without the crush of reporters who documented every twist in a similar case in New Delhi in which a woman died after being gang-raped on a private bus.”

When a student was gang-raped in Delhi in December 2012, there was a national and international outcry. The girl subsequently died of her injuries. There were major protests in India’s cities. This year, four of the five attackers were sentenced to death. There was a sudden flood of stories in domestic and international media about other instances of gang-rape in India, and soul-searching articles about why this brutal crime was so prominent.

Around the time that the Delhi gang rapists were being sentenced, a 22 year old photojournalist was gang-raped in the southern city of Mumbai. She was carrying out an assignment with a male colleague. Her attackers had allegedly previously raped four other women, who had not gone to the police after the assailants threatened to put a video of the attack on the internet. But this girl was undeterred. She immediately reported the crime. Given the timing – with the public outrage around the Delhi trial at full tilt – the authorities acted swiftly, with a level of efficiency usually reserved for terrorism cases. The five men were arrested. The trial began this month. They have all pleaded not guilty.

A shocking, detailed article in the New York Times describes the terrible events of that evening and the arrest of the attackers. Interestingly, it also notes: “The trial in the Mumbai gang-rape case has opened to a drowsy and ill-attended courtroom, without the crush of reporters who documented every twist in a similar case in New Delhi in which a woman died after being gang-raped on a private bus.” This demonstrates how popular outcries can be short, if intense. Since the Delhi case, sexual violence in India has been obsessively discussed within the country and outside it. But is it a solution any closer?

The first thing to note is that there are very few reliable statistics to gauge the real scale of the problem. Gruesome news stories abound. Last week it was reported that a 13 year old girl in Utter Pradesh was raped by three men and then set on fire. Official statistics show that 24,000 instances of sexual assault were reported last year, but given that few people report these crimes, the real figure will be much, much higher. The incentive to report crimes is not high. On top of the social stigma, conviction rates are woeful, standing at around 26 per cent.

The defendants in the Delhi rape case were sentenced to death – a highly unusual move in a rape case, but one that satisfied a public that was baying for blood. Perhaps the defendants in the Mumbai case will meet the same fate; perhaps not. While some may argue that this will act as a deterrent to those who casually commit such crimes, this is a rather short-term view. What stands out from the NYT report on the Mumbai attacks and an equally distressing report in the Guardian about the Delhi case is the casualness with which these crimes were carried out. This is indicative not just of a deeply embedded disdain for women, but of the way in which slum-dwelling urban youth have been brutalised. None of the defendants are exonerated by their poverty, but it may be difficult to address sexual violence without taking social exclusion and structural violence into account.

Gender-based violence in India starts at birth: gender-selective abortions and female infanticide means that the male-to-female population ratio is now 0.93 (worse than in 1970). There are extremely high rates of child marriage, teen pregnancy, and domestic violence. Worryingly, this is seen by many as the natural order of things. A 2012 report by UNICEF found that 57 percent of Indian boys and 53 percent of girls between the ages of 15 and 19 think wife-beating is justified.

In the aftermath of the Delhi rape case, lawmakers significantly tightened up laws on rape, increasing penalties and broadening the criteria of sexual assault crimes. This is to be welcomed – although, as I have written before, enforcing such laws in the face of wildly misogynistic social norms and hugely underfunded and understaffed police forces is another matter altogether.

In the aftermath of the Mumbai attack, Member of Parliament and leader of the Samajwadi Party, Naresh Agarwal, said that women should pay attention to what they wear and that “western culture” may be to blame. In April, a 10 year old girl in Bulandshahr was briefly arrested after she went to police to say she had been raped. In a recent rape case in Dwarka, the judge said that "girls are morally and socially bound not to indulge in sexual intercourse before a proper marriage, and if they do so, it would be to their peril and they cannot be heard crying later that it was rape."

Such attitudes and incidents are commonplace and mainstream. The legal changes are an important first step towards tackling the scourge of sexual violence in India, but they are just that: a first step. Sentencing the accused in high profile cases to death – as happened in Delhi, and may well happen in Mumbai – does not tackle the root cause of the problem, and does not mean justice for the many women whose cases stay under the radar. As the public and the press start to move on, one must hope that all the soul-searching has not been for nothing.

Indian photojournalists and journalists stage a protest against the gang-rape of their female colleague in Mumbai. Image: Getty

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Why Podemos will defeat the Spanish Socialists

A new alliance on the Spanish Left will be stronger than the sum of its parts.

On Saturday morning, on a palm-tree lined promenade in the small city of Badalona in eastern Catalonia, a 38-year-old woman named Mar García Puig fanned herself with her speaking notes after taking her turn on the stage.

Until six months ago, Puig was a literary editor with no professional experience in politics apart from attending demonstrations and rallies. Then, in December, her life was transformed twice over. In the national election, she won a parliamentary seat for En Comú Podem, the Catalan regional ally of the anti-austerity party Podemos. Four hours after she learned of her victory, Puig gave birth to twins.

Fortunately Puig’s husband, who is a teacher, was able to take paternity leave so that she could take up her seat. In parliament, Puig “felt like an alien”, she told me over coffee. As it turned out, she had to give up her seat prematurely anyway – along with all the other Spanish MPs – when repeated attempts to form a government failed. So now, in the lead-up to Spain’s first repeat election of the modern era, to be held on 26 June, Puig was on the campaign trail once more in a drive to win a parliamentary seat.

The December general election was as historic as it was inconclusive, ushering in a novel political era in Spain and leaving the country with the most fragmented parliament in its history. Fed up with corruption, austerity and a weak recovery from the global financial crisis, voters punished the mainstream parties, ending the 40-year dominance of the conservative Partido Popular (People’s Party) and the centre-left PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party), which have held power since the death of General Franco. Neither group was able to win an absolute majority as new parties from both ends of the political spectrum garnered support from disenchanted voters.

On the left, Podemos, which was only founded in March 2014 by the ponytailed political scientist Pablo Iglesias, won 20 per cent of the vote. Ciudadanos (Citizens), formed in Catalonia a decade ago and occupying the centre left or centre right, depending on which analyst you talk to, secured a 14 per cent share.

Despite having four months to form a coalition government, the two biggest political parties could not reach a deal. The People’s Party, which had implemented a harsh austerity package over the past five years, recorded its worst electoral performance since 1989, losing 16 percentage points. It still won the most votes, however, and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was the first leader to be asked by King Felipe VI to form a government.

By the end of January, Rajoy conceded defeat after the PSOE refused to join his “grand coalition”. The Socialists then failed in their own attempt to form a government, leading the king to dissolve parliament and call a fresh election.

Despite the inconvenience of having to campaign nationwide once again – and being away from her twins – Mar García Puig’s enthusiasm for her new career is undiminished. “In Spain there is a window of opportunity,” she said. “There is a receptiveness to politics that there wasn’t before.”

When the repeat elections were called, some questioned whether Podemos and its regional allies could mobilise its supporters to the same extent as in December. Yet Puig believes that the party’s appeal has grown further in the six months that the country has been without a government. “We are still new and Podemos has this freshness – it can still make people join,” she told me.

The following day, as the church bells rang at noon in the Basque city of Bilbao, crowds gathered for another rally. For protection against the sun, Podemos supporters had covered their heads with purple triangular paper hats displaying the party name as it will appear on the ballot paper: Unidos Podemos, or “United We Can”.

In May, Podemos entered into an alliance with Izquierda Unida (United Left), the radical left-wing party that includes the Communist Party of Spain, and which won 3 per cent of the vote in December. Izquierda Unida is headed by Alberto Garzón, a 30-year-old Marxist economist who, according to a poll by the state-run CIS research institute, is the most highly rated party leader in Spain. Unlike Podemos’s Iglesias, who can fire up a crowd and is seen by some as divisive, Garzón is a calm and articulate politician who appeals to disaffected voters.

Nagua Alba, who at 26 is Podemos’s youngest MP, said the new alliance would be stronger than the sum of its parts, because Spain’s voting system punishes smaller parties when it comes to allocating seats in parliament. “It [the alliance] will attract all those people that aren’t convinced yet. It shows we can all work together,” Alba said.

As part of the agreement with Podemos, Izquierda Unida has agreed to drop its demands for a programme of renationalisation and withdrawing Spain from Nato. The alliance is campaigning on a platform of reversing Rajoy’s labour reforms, removing the national debt ceiling, opposing the TTIP trade deal, and increasing the minimum wage to €900 a month. A Unidos Podemos government would attempt to move the EU’s economic policy away from austerity and towards a more expansionist stance, joining a broader effort that involves Greece, Italy and Portugal. It is also committed to offering the Catalans a referendum on independence, a move that the mainstream parties strongly oppose.

The latest polls suggest that Unidos Podemos will become Spain’s second-biggest party, with 26 per cent of the vote, behind Rajoy’s Popular Party. The Socialist Party looks poised to fall into third place, with 21 per cent, and Ciudadanos is expected to hold its 14 per cent share. If the polls are accurate, the PSOE will face a difficult choice that highlights how far its stock has fallen. It can choose to enter as a junior partner into a coalition with the insurgent left, which has politically outmanoeuvred it. Or it could decide to prop up a Partido Popular-led right-wing coalition, serving as a constraint on power. 

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain