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.

Photo: Getty Images/AFP
Show Hide image

Why is the government charging more women for selling sex but turning a blind eye to buyers?

Since 2013, the number of women charged for selling sex gone up while the number of men charged for buying it has gone down.

It’s no surprise that prostitution policy is an area rarely visited by our legislators. It’s politically charged - a place where the need to prevent exploitation seemingly clashes head on with notions of liberal freedom; where there are few simple answers, a disputed evidence base, and no votes.

There’s also little evidence to suggest that MPs are different from the rest of the population - where one-in-ten men have purchased sex. It is little wonder therefore that our report on how the law should change, published in 2014, was the first major cross-party intervention on the subject in twenty years.

Some take the view that by removing all legal constraints, it will make the inherently exploitative trade of prostitution, safer. It’s not just me that questions this approach, though I accept that - equally - there’s no consensus that my preferred measure of criminalising the purchase of sex, while decriminalising the sale, would fundamentally change the scale of the problem.

Where all sides come together, however, is in the desire to see women diverted from the law courts. It is still possible for women (and it still is women; prostitution remains highly genderised) to go to prison for offences related to prostitution. Today, in 2015.

The total number of prosecutions for all prostitution offences in England and Wales has been decreasing since 2010, but not in a uniform fashion. This does not reflect a reduction in the size of the trade, or the violent nature of it.

There were once consistently more prosecutions for kerb crawling, profiting, and control of prostitution. But since 2013, there have been more prosecutions for soliciting or loitering than for profit from prostitution and kerb crawling each year.

In simple terms, offences committed by men with choice, freedom and money in their pocket are having a blind eye turned to them, while women are being targeted - and this trend is accelerating. In the law courts, and in prosecutions, it is the most vulnerable party in the transaction, who is taking the burden of criminality.

Take on-street sex buying as an example. In 2013-14 just 237 prosecutions were brought for kerb crawling, but there were 553 - more than twice as many - for loitering and soliciting.

There is a similar pattern in the 2014/15 figures: 227 charges for kerb crawling reached court, while 456 prosecutions were initiated against those who were selling sex. Just 83 prosecutions for control of prostitution, or ‘pimping’, were brought in that same year.

These are men and women on the same street. It takes a high level of liberal delusion to be convinced that prostitution is caused by a surge of women wishing to sell sex, rather than men who wish to buy it. And yet women who sell sex are the ones being targeted in our law courts, not the men that create the demand in the first place.

This situation even goes against the Crown Prosecution Service’s (CPS) own guidance. They say:

“Prostitution is addressed as sexual exploitation within the overall CPS Violence Against Women strategy because of its gendered nature… At the same time, those who abuse and exploit those involved in prostitution should be rigorously investigated and prosecuted, and enforcement activity focused on those who create the demand for on-street sex, such as kerb crawlers.”

Why then, is this happening? For the same reason it always does - in our criminal justice system stigmatised, poor women are valued less than moneyed, professional men.

My debate in Parliament today raises these issues directly with the government ministers responsible. But to be honest, the prosecution-bias against women in the courts isn’t the problem; merely a symptom of it. This bias will only be tackled when the law reflects the inherent harm of the trade to women, rather than sending the mixed signals of today.

That’s why I welcome the work of the End Demand Alliance, composed of over 40 organisations working to end the demand that fuels sex trafficking and prostitution, advocating the adoption of the Sex Buyer Law throughout the UK.

This would criminalise paying for sex, while decriminalising its sale and providing support and exiting services for those exploited by prostitution. Regardless of these big changes in the law, I don’t see how anyone can support the current state of affairs where there are more prosecutions brought against women than men involved in prostitution.

The authorities are targeting women because they're easier to arrest and prosecute. It goes against their own guidance, common sense and natural justice.
And it needs to stop.

Gavin Shuker is MP for Luton South and chair of the All Party Group on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade.