Two years after the infamous Delhi gang rape, India’s women still aren’t safe

India is only just beginning to understand the scale of its sexual violence problem. The public discussion in the wake of the Nirbhaya case has been encouraging, but until it translates into action, little will change.

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One recent October afternoon, as the intense heat of a summer in Delhi waned to a more bearable 30 degrees, a golf tournament took place at the Delhi Golf Club, a members’ club situated on 220 acres of prime real estate. A few stalls were set up around the grounds, with different vendors promoting products to the people gathered to watch. One stall in particular, with a banner saying “The Safe Women Foundation”, caught my attention. It was selling a luxury women’s magazine, thick and glossy, full of fashion shoots and beauty adverts. Alongside the book, for the cost of 100 rupees (£1), was a book called Women 24 Secure: a woman’s guide to personal safety.

“Every Indian woman steps out of her house with the fear of being followed, harassed or molested,” reads the introduction. “She finds herself unsafe til the time she returns back home.” Over 100 pages, the book lists a huge range of safety measures, such as not going out at night, making sure that not many people know if you live alone, varying your route home from work, and taking particular care in car parks. It goes on to detail some eye-popping self-defence moves, with full photographic guides: “pull hair and strike”, “crouching girl, hidden tigress”, and “head-butting” are just a few. “Instead of being stunned by a pervert grabbing your breast, stun the pervert,” begins one set of instructions, which shows how to block a would-be groper’s hand and elbow them in the face. Another section explains how to use belts, spray deodorants, stones, and forks as makeshift weapons.

Aimed at urban professional women, the book is a clear indicator of the way in which women in India’s major cities feel under siege daily from sexual harassment and violence. “I carry pepper spray with me, I don't walk anywhere by myself except inside a mall, I don't go out alone at night, and I don't take taxis,” says Leia Sharma, a piano teacher who lives in south Delhi. “I don't know any men who do any of those things.”

Sexual violence in Delhi has been hotly debated ever since a brutal gang rape in 2012. The assault happened on 16 December, when a 23-year-old physiotherapy student was travelling home from the cinema with a male friend. They were picked up by a private bus of the type that frequently circles Delhi’s streets. Over the course of several hours, the girl was violently raped by six men, including the driver, and she and her male friend were badly beaten. They were left for dead on the side of the road. The woman, widely known in India as “Nirbhaya”, or “fearless one”, died from her injuries 13 days later, while receiving emergency treatment in Singapore. The sheer extent of the violence was shocking, generating national and international headlines.

Wide scale public protests soon followed in Delhi and other major cities in India, with thousands of demonstrators berating state and central governments for failing to protect women. Insensitive comments from government ministers and other officials did nothing to quell the public outrage. “I have not seen a single incident or example of rape with a respected lady,” said one of the defence lawyers in the case. In the aftermath of these mass protests, the government assembled a judicial committee to recommend legal reforms, and in early 2013, the Criminal Law Amendment Bill was introduced. The changes set out in this new law included the establishment of fast-track courts to deal with rape allegations and new legislation against sexual harassment, voyeurism, and stalking. The so-called “two finger test”, widely used to test whether rape victims were virgins, has been outlawed. Separately to the legal reform, the perpetrators in the Nirbhaya case were, ten months after the attack, found guilty of sexual assault and murder. Four of the five were sentenced to death by hanging, which is highly unusual in rape cases. (The fifth was a juvenile and not eligible for the death penalty; the sixth committed suicide in prison).

It has now been two years since this brutal assault shocked the world. Were these reforms the actions of a government desperate to show they were taking action, or have they resulted in lasting change?

Karuna Nundy is a Supreme Court lawyer and the co-author of the Womanifesto, a six-point plan for improving women’s rights distributed at the last election. “One of the biggest changes since those protests is that the idea of patriarchy as separate from men became quite widespread,” she tells me when we speak on the phone. “All those people coming out into the street showed that this is not just a women’s problem, this is not a gender issue – it’s a larger democratic issue. Government exists in large part to make sure that people can be free of violence from each other. That’s one of the fundamentals of the social contract.”

However, Nundy and other feminist campaigners are quick to point out the shortcomings of the 2013 legal changes. The new law did not outlaw marital rape, which accounts for the majority of sexual assault in India (and elsewhere in the world). Introducing fast-track courts is a largely decorative measure; these cases are heard by the same courts and judges, and are therefore afflicted by the same problems of resources and time. There simply aren’t enough judges to hear the cases, and no-one wants to see the standard of trials reduced. The introduction of the death penalty for sexual assault is also seen as problematic by many feminists, who object to the idea that rape is worse than death. And there’s a basic issue to be addressed before legal changes are even considered.  “Implementation is a problem,” says Nundy. “If you implement the law just the way it is, even though its flawed, violence against women would go down dramatically.” Existing legislation against dowry payments and gender-selective abortions is rarely enforced due to a poor rule of law across the board and undersized, corrupt police forces.

But the impact of a shift in mindset is demonstrable. Indian government statistics show that in 2013, there was a 35 per cent increase in the numbers of rapes reported. The number is expected to increase again in 2014 – although an estimated 90 per cent of rapes still go unreported. There is also a far greater media focus on such incidents. It is difficult to open a newspaper in India without reading about an atrocity against a woman: honour violence, gang rape, abuse of young girls. After the December 2012 protests, there was a period of national soul-searching about why these crimes were so commonplace. Part of the reason is demographic: gender-based violence in India starts before birth. Gender-selective abortions and female infanticide are widespread, to the extent that the male-to-female population ratio is 0.93 (worse than it was in 1970). Child marriage, teen pregnancy, and domestic violence are extremely common. And patriarchal attitudes are normalised. A 2012 report by Unicef found that 57 per cent of Indian boys and 53 per cent of girls between the ages of 15 and 19 think wife-beating is justified. In many rural areas, tribal justice and feudal practices continue, including the routine use of gang-rape as a way to settle scores. In a population of over a billion people, there are huge gulfs between rich and poor, rural and urban, and from state to state, but a restrictive and patriarchal morality is a common thread. In urban centres such as Delhi, women are more independent than ever before and do not live under the same restrictions as women in less developed areas. Yet for all these greater freedoms, women still live with the constant threat of sexual violence– the National Crime Records Bureau says that 93 women report a rape in India every day, with the largest number in Delhi.

The Centre for Social Research (CSR) is situated above a bank in Vasant Kunj in south Delhi. A framed poster outside its office is emblazoned with the slogan: “Let’s embrace change and restructure gender relations”. Among other things, the organisation trains the police in gender sensitivity, and runs a rape crisis centre.  “That there is violence against women is now established fact,” says Amitabh Kumar, the CSR’s head of media and communications. “Before the 16 December protests, there was a lot of hypocrisy. Today, even if people don’t believe there is a problem, there is social pressure to agree with it – the norm has changed. Even if it’s a superficial change, that means that a generation down, your son won’t have heard you saying women are asking for it.”

This has gone right up to the highest echelons of government. “Our heads hang in shame when we hear about rapes,” said newly elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a speech in August. “Why can't we prevent this? When a daughter steps out, parents demand to know where she's going. But when a son returns home, does anyone dare ask where he is coming from? He might have been with the wrong people, doing wrong things. After all, a person raping is someone's son. Why don't parents apply the same yardstick of good behaviour for their sons as for their daughters?”
Yet for all this increased public discussion of violence against women and the need for protection, women still do not feel safe. The Delhi Metro system has ladies’ only carriages, but many say this offers scant protection. “I would never take the Metro on my own,” says Sharma, the piano teacher. “Friends of mine have taken the Metro and men have tried to assault them in public on a crowded train.” When I last visited Delhi, relatives excitedly told me about the introduction of the mobile phone taxi app Uber. The app identifies your driver by name and license plate, and your journey can be tracked on GPS, so it was seen as a safer option than hailing a cab on the street. That changed this month, when almost exactly two years after the Nirbhaya assault, a woman was allegedly raped by an Uber driver. The government response was to ban internet taxi apps. This is evidence of what many see as misguided policy making; a desire to be seen to be taking action, without thinking through the most effective way to make changes. “A lot of it is just lip service,” says Nundy. “When someone in public life says something horrible like ‘boys make mistakes’, political parties slam him. But in terms of what action has been taken, it is just bits here and there.”

The Forum to Engage Men (FEM) is an organisation that works with men to counter gender injustice. Its offices are in the affluent Delhi district of Saket, in the basement of a hostel for young single women who have migrated to the city for work. These “working women’s hostels” are a government initiative to provide safe accommodation in convenient locations for women who need to live away from their families because of work, a reflection of the changing face of India.

Satish Singh, the head of FEM, has been working with men on gender issues for over a decade. In 2002, he started a network called Men’s Action for Stopping Violence Against Women, and he runs gender sensitisation programmes in rural areas of India, teaching men in villages to treat their wives better and break out of traditional gender roles. His work has had considerable success; in the areas he works, men eschew domestic violence and help with cooking and childcare. This kind of fieldwork is revolutionary, but the idea behind it – that masculinity needs to be addressed if there is any hope of reducing gender-based violence – is gaining currency, particularly in the two years since the December 2012 protests. The hyper-masculine ideal still dominates in India, but there have been some high-profile attempts to counter it. In October, Vogue India ran a short film online, starring renowned actress Madhuri Dixit. “We teach our ‘tough boys’ not to cry, but instead we should teach them not to make women in their lives cry,” read the promotional blurb.

“Men have the privilege in a patriarchal society, but they also have to pay the cost of that privilege,” Singh tells me over a coffee in his basement office. “In South Asia, men have to be protector, successor, leader of the family, and take all that burden. In one way this centralises the power, in another way it brutalises men. Not all men are able to be protectors. Then they are not men because they are not successful. We have to address this idea of masculinity.”

The perpetrators in the Delhi case all lived in impoverished areas and were, in differing ways, victims of the structural violence of inequality. This does not justify their actions, but it does contextualise them. A stereotype in India is that people in Delhi, particularly men, are aggressive. According to Singh’s analysis, men who feel emasculated by their inability to succeed – which, in fact, is due to failings of education, social mobility, and employment opportunities – act out their masculinity in an ever-more aggressive way.

Many campaigners in India speak of a confused attitude to sexuality. Bollywood movies and imported films and TV series from America depict romantic and sexual relationships, but this is not accompanied by proper teaching or discussion of how relationships should work. Singh suggests that traditional codes of modesty and morality, which prohibit sex outside marriage, and strictly proscribe female sexuality, have confused the whole notion of consent for many young people. “All women are taught in South Asia that they can’t say yes. So women always say no, and men always believe that no means yes. Men don’t like it when a woman easily says yes to a sexual relationship, as they believe it means she is of loose character, and men believe their masculinity is only accepted if they are sexually violent. In South Asia, people have sex but no sex education.”

The Nirbhaya case was not the first brutal gang rape to shock India. The previous July, a 17-year-old girl in the north-eastern city of Guwahati was sexually assaulted by around 20 men. The incident was filmed by a passing TV crew and later broadcast. There was national outrage. Nothing changed. Around the time the Delhi gang rapists were being sentenced, a 22-year-old photojournalist was gang raped in Mumbai. Her attackers, too, were sentenced to death. But what of the structural factors that led to these attacks taking place?

Sexual violence and violence against women is a global problem, and many of the issues that Indian campaigners describe are common to countries all over the world: a lack of funding for crisis centres and counselling, police refusing to record cases or making victims feel uncomfortable, a lack of female officers. “The police are generally very harsh,” says Dorothy Kamal, a rape counsellor for CSR. “People are afraid of them.” India’s police forces are chronically overstretched; and misogynistic social norms still dominate, for all the current public discussion. “Recognising the problem is positive, but when it comes to solutions, we are still grasping in the dark,” says Kumar.

Most agree that it will take time, above all else, for social norms to change. Feminist campaigners are pushing for the adoption of a broad public education programme about sex, relationships, and consent, but this seems a long way off given the repressive morality that still dominates public life. “I’d like to see citizenship classes in schools where you learn what it is to be a girl and a boy, and how it’s a social construction,” says Nundy.

Until the public discussion translates into meaningful social change, women still live with the mindset illustrated by the booklet I picked up at the Delhi Golf Club: “Even with all the strength she embodies, a woman remains afraid to walk down a street or enter an empty house on her own.” Those with the funds to do so travel everywhere by car, and those who do not must simply manage the risk.

“I remember seeing a comic strip about how a feminist fantasy is to be able to go out for a walk in the middle of the night,” says Nundy. “It doesn’t sound wild – but it speaks to that deep desire for freedom. A lot of women are realising that freedom in their minds, and realising that is something that should happen.”

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