Will the Delhi gang-rape case actually change women's lives in India?

Translating "watershed" moments into action is almost impossible in a misogynist society with an under-equipped police force.


By now, you will know the basic facts of the Delhi gang rape case. On 16 December, a woman and her male companion were lured onto a private bus. On board, she was brutally gang-raped and beaten by six men as the bus drove around the city. After a sustained ordeal, the two victims were thrown onto the street. She died of her injuries a fortnight later.

You will also be aware of the response. Delhi and other major Indian cities were overcome with protests, while politicians, after initially misjudging the public mood, have promised change. The case and its implications have been exhaustively debated in the international media. Some British journalists have denounced India’s misogynistic culture (the case should “shatter our Bollywood fantasies”, said Libby Purves in the Times) while others condemned this neo-colonial attitude, noting that rape is hardly a problem unique to the subcontinent - “let us Brits not get all high and mighty,” said Owen Jones in the Independent. Particularly dishearteningly, sections of the Pakistani and Indian press have been engaged in a “your misogyny is worse than our misogyny” tit-for-tat.

As commentators run out of new things to say, what of the response that really matters – that taking place in Indian halls of power, and across society? Legal reforms under discussion include harsher penalties for sexual assault and fast-tracked court cases to improve woeful conviction rates. Yet, as many have pointed out, the problem runs deeper than legal changes.

This is not the first time that a brutal rape has prompted outrage in India, although the outpouring of grief and anger has arguably reached a new level this time. In July last year, a 17 year old girl in the north-eastern city of Guwahati was sexually assaulted by around 20 men.  A passing TV crew filmed the incident, rather than intervening to stop it. National outrage ensued after the clip was shown on television. Yet despite the protests, international news coverage, and introspection about rape culture, nothing changed. This was not the first high profile rape case; it will not be the last.

Translating a high profile “watershed moment” into lasting change is a serious challenge in any country in the world. The major difficulty of overcoming regressive attitudes is evident in statements made in recent days – from the guru who said that the woman was partly to blame, to the defence lawyer for the case, who said this week: “I have not seen a single incident or example of rape with a respected lady”.

This goes beyond offensive statements. Laws to protect women already exist – but are not enforced at ground-level due to a chronically under-funded, under-trained, and misogynistic police force. This is true across the sub-continent. Across the border in Pakistan, a law was introduced in 2011 to combat acid violence – yet a year later, campaigners say it has made little difference, with just 10 per cent of cases making it to court due to poor enforcement. The story is the same for a raft of pro-women legislation on both sides of the Indo-Pakistan border.

This lack of enforcement is at its worst in impoverished rural areas. The increasingly educated, urban India, which has been deeply disturbed by this event, is a marked contrast to the rural expanse of villages where it has barely made an impact. In villages, tribal justice and feudal practices continue unabated, with gang rapes routinely meted out as punishment. Living in Pakistan, I was shocked by the frequency with which these horrifying stories are reported. And those are just the ones that make the newspapers. The story is not dissimilar in India (despite the cross-border sniping about which country is worse for women). A BBC article last week listed some recent cases:

“A 10-month-old raped by a neighbour in Delhi; an 18-month-old raped and abandoned on the streets in Calcutta; a 14-year-old raped and murdered in a police station in Uttar Pradesh; a husband facilitating his own wife's gang rape in Howrah; a 65-year-old grandmother raped in Kharagpur.”

A serious and sustained discussion of rape and the myriad factors which allow it to happen can only be welcomed. But as the media storm dies down, the true test comes: will this really mean anything for India’s women?

"Designated rape zone": graffiti in New Delhi. Photo: Getty

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

Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage