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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What does the end of the one-child policy mean for China's disabled population?

Even after the policy was abolished last year, cultural prejudices against disabled people have proven hard to shake.

In a small shop hidden in the shadows of the gleaming, golden arches of the two-storey McDonald’s next door, Liu Wenzheng has been developing photographs since 1995. Business in his north Beijing neighbourhood is slow but steady. Every now and then, a Western couple will come in to have a photograph taken of their newly adopted Chinese child. The child is nearly always “imperfect” in some way, whether it’s something as minor as a cleft palate, or a more challenging disability.

“Westerners have higher morals. They will adopt disabled children,” Liu tells me over a glass of baijiu, the distilled Chinese rice spirit, at a nearby restaurant. His disappointment in his own people is personal: Liu has been disabled for all of his adult life, since a run-in with Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution left him so badly beaten that his left leg had to be amputated. He was 22 and had been arrested for reading banned American literature.

He spent six months in hospital. After being discharged with a rudimentary wooden limb, he returned to his old job on a Beijing factory floor. “I was tough and people were scared of me,” Liu says, his brusque manner and burly frame illustrating his point. “Not every disabled person would have been allowed back to work with a full salary, to stand there and not do much.” Throughout our conversation, he emphasises the rarity of his situation compared to that of other disabled people. He has worked all his life, is happily married and has an adult son. Most disabled people in China are not so lucky.

A few miles north of Liu’s shop, on the outskirts of an eerily quiet retail park, Alenah’s Home is a warm hub of activity. This private centre for disabled orphans has been looking after children since 2004. The children come from orphanages all around China, which don’t have the funds or the facilities to provide disabled care. Many children, such as Furui, a one-year-old who was abandoned after a premature delivery, arrive with muscular atrophy – a result of months of neglect.

Alenah’s Home is one of the few private centres of its kind in China that look after disabled orphans. They don’t receive any government funding. Chris Hu, a full-time volunteer, tells me that children who are abandoned in China are nearly always female, disabled or both. This is in part a result of China’s one-child policy, which made China’s disabled population fall to 6 per cent of the country as a whole (the global average is 15 per cent) and also produced a gender imbalance of 120 boys for every 100 girls.

China’s one-child policy was officially abolished in January 2016. But Hu agrees with experts who predict that this won’t necessarily redress demographic imbalances. Cultural prejudices against disabled people are hard to shake. Confucian ideology emphasises the idea of the body as a point along an ancestral continuum. Thus, any defect is attributed to a spiritual flaw in the family, even for disabilities, such as Liu’s, which are caused by injury. It is easy to dismiss this kind of abstraction as stereotyping, but when Yuan Xiaolu, a retired journalist who has been blind in one eye since birth, repeatedly tells me, “I don’t blame my mother,” it suggests a genuine anxiety about the perception of her family’s morals.

In wealthy cities, and especially in popular tourist areas, public facilities are becoming more accessible to disabled people. The Chinese government claimed to have invested 500 million yuan in the construction and renovation of 25,000 public toilets in 2015, most of them wheelchair-friendly. This follows changes in the law to encourage greater inclusivity: employers are required to reserve 1.5 per cent of jobs for people with disabilities, or pay a fee to the Disabled Persons’ Employment Security Fund, which is managed by the China Disabled Persons’ Federation (CDPF), a government body.

However, meaningful social change lags behind. Disabled children are more likely to be found – and often abandoned – in poorer rural areas, where women can’t afford abortions and facilities don’t exist to support disabled people. Liu describes the government’s measures as “barely a cup of water when you need the sea”, saying that most companies would rather pay the fine than employ a disabled person.

Even then, John Giszczak, a former China programmes manager for Save the Children, has said that the fees paid to the CDPF often end up being spent on overpriced “pseudoscientific ‘therapeutic’ equipment”.

The CDPF was founded in 1988 by Deng Pufang, the son of the then Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping. Like Liu, Deng Pufang was paralysed – left paraplegic after an assault by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. Having such a high-profile disabled person in Chinese public life contributed to a more open attitude towards physical disabilities, but this didn’t necessarily spread to all aspects of life.

Similarly, when the Hubei-based farmer Yu Xiuhua, who has cerebral palsy, published her poem “Crossing Half of China to Sleep with You”, which went viral on Chinese social media, she illustrated that her situation was an exception to the opportunities for disabled people, rather than the norm. Like most disabled people in China, Yu was unable to finish school and has spoken about how she has felt “undermined . . . [and] hated” by her body. Still, she insists, “My disability really has nothing to do with my poetry.”

“It’s not the government that’s the problem. It’s the people,” Liu says. China is often characterised as a country where the official Communist Party line is the only one that matters. But most Chinese people I speak to see their culture as running far deeper than political diktats. Policies may change behaviour or improve facilities for disabled people, but social rehabilitation seems a long way off.

Still, I suggest to Liu, he seems to have done quite well for himself. His family and his photography business aren’t the future he foresaw when he first became disabled. “Not really,” he says glumly. “Digital ruined everything.”

Amy Hawkins is a freelance journalist based in Beijing. You can follow her on Twitter @DHawkins93.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge