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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After Article 50 is triggered, what happens next?

Theresa May says Article 50 will be triggered on 29 March. The UK must prepare for years, if not decades, of negotiating. 

Back in June, when Europe woke to the news of Brexit, the response was muted. “When I first emerged from my haze to go to the European Parliament there was a big sign saying ‘We will miss you’, which was sweet,” Labour MEP Seb Dance remembered at a European Parliament event in London. “The German car industry said we don’t want any disruption of trade.”

But according to Dance – best known for holding up a “He’s Lying” sign behind Nigel Farage’s head – the mood has hardened with the passing months.

The UK is seen as demanding. The Prime Minister’s repeated refusal to guarantee EU citizens’ rights is viewed as toxic. The German car manufacturers now say the EU is more important than British trade. “I am afraid that bonhomie has evaporated,” Dance said. 

On Wednesday 29 March the UK will trigger Article 50. Doing so will end our period of national soul-searching and begin the formal process of divorce. So what next?

The European Parliament will have its say

In the EU, just as in the UK, the European Parliament will not be the lead negotiator. But it is nevertheless very powerful, because MEPs can vote on the final Brexit deal, and wield, in effect, a veto.

The Parliament’s chief negotiator is Guy Verhofstadt, a committed European who has previously given Remoaners hope with a plan to offer them EU passports. Expect them to tune in en masse to watch when this idea is revived in April (it’s unlikely to succeed, but MEPs want to discuss the principle). 

After Article 50 is triggered, Dance expects MEPs to draw up a resolution setting out its red lines in the Brexit negotiations, and present this to the European Commission.

The European Commission will spearhead negotiations

Although the Parliament may provide the most drama, it is the European Commission, which manages the day-to-day business of the EU, which will lead negotiations. The EU’s chief negotiator is Michel Barnier. 

Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has said of the negotiations: “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

This will be a “deal” of two halves

The Brexit divorce is expected to take 16 to 18 months from March (although this is simply guesswork), which could mean Britain officially Brexits at the start of 2019.

But here’s the thing. The divorce is likely to focus on settling up bills and – hopefully – agreeing a transitional arrangement. This is because the real deal that will shape Britain’s future outside the EU is the trade deal. And there’s no deadline on that. 

As Dance put it: “The duration of that trade agreement will exceed the life of the current Parliament, and might exceed the life of the next as well.”

The trade agreement may look a bit like Ceta

The European Parliament has just approved the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with Canada, a mammoth trade deal which has taken eight years to negotiate. 

One of the main stumbling points in trade deals is agreeing on similar regulatory standards. The UK currently shares regulations with the rest of the UK, so this should speed up the process.

But another obstacle is that national or regional parliaments can vote against a trade deal. In October, the rebellious Belgian region of Wallonia nearly destroyed Ceta. An EU-UK deal would be far more politically sensitive. 

The only way is forward

Lawyers working for the campaign group The People’s Challenge have argued that it will legally be possible for the UK Parliament to revoke Article 50 if the choice is between a terrible deal and no deal at all. 

But other constitutional experts think this is highly unlikely to work – unless a penitent Britain can persuade the rest of the EU to agree to turn back the clock. 

Davor Jancic, who lectures on EU law at Queen Mary University of London, believes Article 50 is irrevocable. 

Jeff King, a professor of law at University College London, is also doubtful, but has this kernel of hope for all the Remainers out there:

“No EU law scholar has suggested that with the agreement of the other 27 member states you cannot allow a member state to withdraw its notice.”

Good luck chanting that at a march. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.