As the gruesome details of the crime emerged late last year, a collective question emerged across India: how did we let things get this bad? A government-appointed committee headed by former Supreme Court Chief Justice J.S. Verma has recommended stricter punishment for crimes like gang rape, sexual harassment and acid attacks on women. The Verma Commission also proposed that marital rape and stalking be made criminal offenses, and that members of the armed forces accused of sexual assault be subject to civilian, not military, law. In early February, some of these recommendations were signed into a temporary new law that, among other things, allows for capital punishment in rapes that result in death or leave a victim in a vegetative state.
Changing people’s deeply entrenched distrust of the police will be harder. Underreporting of crimes of sexual violence is believed to be widespread, due both to their social stigma and the belief that the police won’t do anything. Part of the problem is how they’re deployed. Police nationwide are disproportionately assigned to protect high-profile government officials. The more fundamental issue is public mistrust. The widespread perception of Indian police is that “corruption is rampant” and they have a “tendency to exploit,” P.P. Rao, a senior advocate in the Supreme Court, said during a recent conference on police reforms in New Delhi. “Nobody wants to go to a police station if they can help it,” says Gupta, the sociologist. “That is why these crimes go unpunished and give criminals the confidence they can get away with it.”
Another factor is changing gender roles in a traditionally patriarchal society. Currently, just 39.5% of women in India are active in the workforce, compared to 82% in China. If the nation’s slowing economy is going to make a sustainable recovery, it will need women to join in, as will the multinationals looking to do ever more business here, and families struggling to make ends meet. By all accounts, the Dec. 16 rape victim was just the kind of ambitious, driven young woman whom India needs. She was studying to be a physiotherapist and had promised her hard-working parents a better life when she made it to the top, or at least to the middle. Though the number of working women has been dropping, the number of female-headed households is rising, mostly in rural areas where more and more men are leaving to earn money in the cities. The women are rightly insisting on a say in how things get done. That’s a change that has not sat well with many men, who end up feeling pushed to the side as women take a more central role. “Now that women are doing things—and demanding certain things as rights—men are getting angry and upset,” says Gupta.
Hundreds of millions of Indian men defy the misogynistic stereotype, of course. Men were also a driving force of the protests that erupted after the attack, just as outraged as the women they stood shoulder to shoulder with.Even men who prescribe to conservative, patriarchal thinking can’t be typecast: a man that won’t permit his wife to leave the house may very well send all his daughters to school. “There is no one way in which men perceive women in India,” says Kishwar. The right of people of all ideologies to live as they see fit is part of the DNA of this country, she says, but it’s the government’s job to make sure they co-exist under the law: “You have to accept this diversity and engage with it.”