Last year’s brutal attack against a young woman in Delhi caused a worldwide outcry, igniting calls for changes in women’s rights. Lorenza Bacino examines what progress is being made in India, and the obstacles it faces

It’s a warm, balmy evening much like any other in the bustling Indian capital of Delhi. The streets are alive with the smells of sizzling food and the shouts of traders selling their wares. People are getting on with their business as they always have.

But a subtle change is underway across India, in the wake of the brutal gang rape of a young woman on a bus in December last year.

“Women are holding their chins up a little more defiantly, as if to say ‘don’t mess with me’,” says Suneeta Dhar, director of Jagori, a Delhi-based NGO working on gender equality and women’s rights.

Journalist and commentator Chhavi Sachdev, who lives in Mumbai, agrees. “There’s definitely a seething defiance close to the surface. Women seem less fearful of taking on harassment and are more likely to counter whistles and leers with a verbal rebuke.”

Sachdev spent 12 years in the United States before returning to Delhi. She then chose to leave the capital and moved to Mumbai (formerly Bombay) because, as a single woman living alone, she says it felt safer.

“The perception is that Bombay is safer. If you feel it, it perpetuates itself,” she explains. “Bombay’s a bit like New York in that it’s a city of immigrants. It’s anonymous and non-judgmental, which is why I love it. Delhi is more patriarchal as a society and more family-oriented, and from my experience, men tend to be more chauvinistic.”

“Women are holding their chins up a little more defiantly, as if to say ‘don’t mess with me’.”

Her comments reflect what’s happening in the northern Indian city of Lucknow, where a group of young women who call themselves the Red Brigade have decided that verbal rebukes are simply not enough. Aged between 11 and 25 and dressed in red and black (red for danger and black for protest), their number has swollen from a mere 15 to well over 100 in recent months. If the police don’t act on reports of harassment, they do. Trained in martial arts, they use their fists as a warning to any would-be attacker, many of whom slink off, without a scene, to contemplate this brave new stance.

India is home to a strong tradition in women’s rights groups and has been for decades. Their struggles have led to gradual social change and some improvements for women, including dowry law, health provision and work rights, but the public outcry following the attack in December 2012 has given activists a renewed momentum.

Jagori’s Suneeta Dhar says: “This is the first time so many people have connected to the issue and it’s this that has taken it to the deeper level of transparency and accountability.”

Chhavi Sachdev explains why women are feeling they can speak out more now: “I think a lot of women have come forward in solidarity and started to recognise that being molested doesn’t have to be part of their life, nor is it something they have to shoulder silently. I think as a society, here, as in most places, the shame and blame fall on the victim and I believe the sheer outpouring of public discourse – about women, by women – may help remove that stigma.

“On Twitter and online I’ve seen women find the courage to speak up and say they too were abused or molested and that the shame is the perpetrator’s, not theirs! I think that – just that – is such a huge step forward.”

“As a society the shame and blame fall on the victim and I believe the sheer outpouring of public discourse – about women, by women – may help remove that stigma”

Although the protests were spearheaded by women’s groups and students, Satish Singh, a founding member of the Delhi-based Forum to Engage Men, says the fact that men have joined the ranks for the first time has given the issue of violence against women a new dimension.

“This has been a very positive thing for the movement,” says Singh. “The men who stood for equality and believed in human rights got a space and an opportunity to be heard. Men have to learn the role of caring and participate more on this front. Only then can they live better as human beings, rather than objectifying women as something that they have to control.”

But despite the renewed momentum, incidences of rape and harassment continue unabated. It is estimated that on average there are two rapes an hour in Delhi, but in 2012 only around 600 rapes were reported. The conviction rate does the issue even less justice.

“But,” says Singh, “the public outcry is evident in the fact that these are continuously being reported in the media and the process of getting justice has become speedier.”

This outcry has spilled out onto the world stage, predominantly igniting calls for change in how violence against women is dealt with. The UN Women pilot scheme, titled the Safe Cities Global Initiative, which began in five cities (Delhi, Cairo in Egypt, Kigali in Rwanda, Quito in Ecuador and Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea) has now spread to more than 20 cities and continues to grow. Each city is taking practical steps to help keep women safe, including basic measures such as improving street lighting and building design. It also includes training police to be more sensitive in how they deal with reports of rape, and employing more women as police officers. UN Women is also partnering with Microsoft to use mobile technology to stop sexual harassment and violence in public spaces.

Still, change does not come as quickly as many would like. Bangladeshi lawyer and human rights activist Khaleda Khatoon explains why progress remains slow in India, and indeed in countries worldwide.

“Bangladesh has a new law against violence against women, which is supposed to protect them, but the main obstruction is the implementation of the law. The reason behind this is lack of good governance in all the layers of governmental hierarchy.

“Let’s raise our voices against such violence and let’s ask ourselves how we, in our daily actions, in our thoughts, contribute to this, rather than assume that the solution lies with someone else”

“Rape takes place everywhere in the world, in poor and rich nations, and I think the same applies to Bangladesh. The difference is that the developed nations have a stronger judiciary system and our system is weak. Another thing is that when a woman is raped, the attitude is that she must have invited it in some way. This is the attitude of a legal system which prejudices justice.”

Urvashi Butalia, a writer from Delhi, goes further. “It is important to raise our collective voice against rape. But rape is not something that occurs by itself. It’s part of the continuing and embedded violence in society that targets women on a daily basis. Let’s raise our voices against such violence and let’s ask ourselves how we, in our daily actions, in our thoughts, contribute to this, rather than assume that the solution lies with someone else.”

And, as Satish Singh points out, it’s society as a whole that needs to come together to make a real and committed difference.

“This whole mobilisation has created a positive atmosphere where men have become more open to listening and are arguing less to justify gender-based violence. If more and more men continue to remain connected and come out on the streets to speak against violence against women, it will help in creating a violence-free world for women, and for all.”

Here in the UK, figures released by the Crown Prosecution Service reveal rape prosecutions are up from 58% in 2007/8 to 63% for 2012/13. That’s the highest on record and would suggest some progress is being made.

And back in March, foreign secretary William Hague teamed up with UN Refugee Agency special envoy, Angelina Jolie, to highlight the issue of warzone rape. They visited the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Rwanda, where rape is frequently used as a weapon of war. Angelina Jolie said at the time: “We want to persuade governments around the world to give this issue the attention it deserves.”

But despite these efforts, Lena Slachmuijlder, vice president of programmes for the conflict resolution organisation Search for Common Ground, says: “The DRC remains the worst place in the world to be a woman, with rape by armed groups, soldiers and civilians posing a real threat to women every day. This phenomenon is now societal, and needs more focus on the way in which men and women engage with each other. It’s only when men become partners with women in preventing rape that we’ll be able to envision an end to rape in the DRC.”

Elsewhere in Africa, in the country of Morocco, plans are underway to amend a law that allows rapists to avoid prosecution if they marry their victim. Khadija Ryadi, president of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights, says this is only a first step, as it doesn’t recognise conjugal rape, which accounts for 50% of attacks against women. However, it’s a start.

Change is happening, albeit slowly. It could take a long time to make a dent in the injustice that women face all over the world, every day. However, the horrific events that transpired on that fateful December day in Delhi may well serve as a catalyst for faster progress.

Photo title: Communities in India are coming together to support women

Photo credit: © McKay Savage