What's changed in India

Demonstrators holding a candlelight vigil last Friday after four men were sentenced to death in New Delhi for raping and murdering a 23-year-old student in December.

INDIA - "Are you being harassed? Don't bear it silently. Call the Delhi police", say signs posted outside a posh shopping mall in Saket in south Delhi.

The mall is the same one where a 23-year-old physiotherapy student watched a movie with a friend on Dec 16 before boarding a bus where six men raped her brutally. Two weeks later, she died from massive internal injuries at Mount Elizabeth Hospital in Singapore.

On Friday, a Delhi court sentenced Mukesh Singh, 26, Pawan Gupta, 19, Vinay Sharma, 20 and Akshay Thakur, 28, to death for subjecting the victim to "inhuman acts of torture". A fifth suspect, Ram Singh, hanged himself in his prison cell in March, and a juvenile is serving a three-year sentence in a reform home for his part in the horrific incident.

The Saket mall posters were not put up until after the brutal crime. While it is doubtful they would have prevented the horrific crime even if they had been there earlier, they are a dramatic sign of the times: the nation has finally acknowledged the dangers faced by women in India.

"After Dec 16, for the first time in history of independent India, the entire country and Parliament debated the safety of women," says Ms Annie Raja, a social activist with the National Federation of Indian Women. She noted that "more women are coming out and saying this has happened to me and 'I want justice'."

Indeed, the crime ignited such rage that some people handed out sweets in the streets to celebrate the death sentence and the English-language Hindustan Times headline screamed "Showed no mercy, got no mercy".

Indian rights groups and others, however, voiced dismay yesterday, saying death sentences were unlikely to reverse the country's "rape crisis".

Ms Kavita Krishnan of the All India Progressive Women's Association said the death penalty was hardly going to serve as a deterrent and was taking focus away from on crucial issues like better policing, setting up rape crisis centres and fighting a culture where the blame falls on the rape victim.

"There is nothing to suggest that the death penalty has deterred anything. In the same court, out of 23 rape cases, 20 resulted in acquittal and three in conviction so what is the deterrent?" she said. "So the odds are in the rapists' favour."

Men and women alike poured into the streets in protest after the sordid details of the young student's rape and subsequent death made headlines in December. Lawmakers responded by making stalking and voyeurism crimes, stationing at least one policewoman in each police station, and transferring rape cases to fast-track courts.

But, in spite of all that, India remains uncomfortable with the emerging face of femininity in modern India: More women are working, becoming independent, deciding what they want to wear and who they want to date and marry.

Soon after a crime that horrified the world, politicians and religious leaders even blamed women for "asking for it" by the way they dressed.

Even the new laws to protect women seem to have failed to stem the tide of crimes. In Delhi, 1,036 cases of rape had been reported from the beginning of the year to last month, a shocking surge from the 433 reported during the same period last year.

It is believed many rapes still go unreported.

"If you want to find changes, more cases are getting registered and more people are speaking out," said Dr Ranjana Kumari, director for the New Delhi-based Centre for Social Research. "But I wouldn't say this has woken up society and stopped violence against women. Rape is a deeper issue than physical assault on women. It is also how women are perceived in society."

Families still prefer sons to daughters because they dish out hefty dowries - including cars and cash - when girls get married, even though the practice has been outlawed. The aborting of female foetuses remains rampant.

Activists believe that the only way to deter sex crimes against women is by implementing the laws strictly. The National Crimes Records Bureau shows 24,923 rape cases registered across the country last year. Only 96 of those cases reached courts and only 24 resulted in convictions.

"I'm not bothered about attitudes changing but in the enforcement of my right as a woman," says Ms Khadijah Faruqui, head of a women's helpline set up by Delhi's government after the gang rape. "I am an equal citizen of this country. Once law becomes stronger, which it has, and enforcement becomes proactive and quick, automatically there will be a fear of the law."

But in the biggest test of the gang rape fallout and attempted fixes, women still do not feel safe in India's leading cities.

A survey of 4,500 women by college students in St Xavier's College in Mumbai found that 75 per cent of them do not feel safe on public transport in the evening and about 48 per cent said they had faced verbal and physical harassment.

"Men will stand very close to a woman and make her uncomfortable," said Mr Vikas Tyagi, 31, a former call centre worker who has taken part in anti-rape protests. "To effect change we have to stop crimes from the beginning and women need to speak out more."

But some women are finding their voices. A 38-year-old single mother who was raped while returning from a club in Kolkata a year ago has gone public about the isolation she faced afterwards.

"She had a lot of problems in her neighbourhood. People avoided her," said Ms Santasree Chaudhuri, a social activist based in Kolkata, who gave her a job as a counsellor at a helpline she started.

"She... was hiding behind closed doors, scared. Since she has spoken out publicly, the fear has gone."


Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.