Does the New Delhi Rape Mark a Turning Point?

Nandita Bhatla is an ICRW senior technical specialist in gender and development

Diverse groups galvanize to ensure a safer environment for India’s women and girls

As the One Billion Rising global call to action against gender-based violence kicked off, ICRW’s Nandita Bhatla reflected on the rape of a New Delhi woman that sparked global outrage, explaining how to ensure a safer tomorrow for India’s women and girls.

When I first read about the gang rape of the 23-year-old New Delhi woman last December, I felt some anger, some sadness. But my mind did not dwell much on it.

Over the years, I had read countless similar stories about women and girls violated and left for dead – the incidents and their lives a postscript buried in a newspaper or at the close of a TV news broadcast. Seldom are these accounts followed up with a report of how justice was served with a perpetrator's arrest and conviction.

Meanwhile, this violence, humiliation and degradation continue daily for women and girls in public spaces in New Delhi. At the market, on trains, in shopping centers, on the sidewalk. It is common practice for men, young and old, to make lewd gestures at women or sexually abusive comments or to intentionally brush up against them or grope them in public. It does not matter your economic class or educational level. And typically, no one who sees it intervenes. The ordinariness of this is shocking, and frightening.

In a household survey ICRW conducted in New Delhi between October and November last year – before the gang rape that caused global outrage – only 5 percent of the women and girls surveyed reporting feeling safe from sexual violence in public spaces in Delhi. Nine out of 10 told us they had experienced sexual violence – from obscene comments to stalking to rape – in a public space in their lifetime. Twenty percent said they don't venture out alone at all.

Meanwhile, half of the men we surveyed said they had sexually harassed or been violent with a woman in a public setting at least once in their lifetime. Despite this admittance, men continue to blame women, with three out of four agreeing with the statement, "Women provoke men by the way they dress." Two out of five men partially or fully agreed that women "moving around at night deserve to be sexually harassed."

We carried out our study in partnership with UN Women , the Indian government and the New Delhi-based organization, Jagori . It's all part of an overall effort to make Delhi a safer city for women and girls.

The reality they face in public is the norm in Indian society, one anchored in deep-seated social and cultural expectations around what it means to be a man and what a woman's role in society should be. Many Indian men feel entitled to control women, and this is consistently reinforced in our culture – by parents at home, teachers from grade school to college, and by government and law enforcement officials. Men set the rules, and if women step outside of these – such as going out after dusk – they should be ready to face the consequences. That's how the thinking goes.

Many women have internalized this thinking, too, and will feel ashamed about the sexual harassment they may face on a bus. Or that they deserve it, because they dared to tip-toe outside of the "boundaries" drawn for them by men.

On the same day I read the story about the brutal gang rape of the young woman – who we all know later died – I was part of a meeting of advocates who gathered to urge the Indian government to put more money into implementing the country's first anti-domestic violence law, passed in 2005. Participants at the meeting were eager to finish up quickly. "Let's go to India Gate," they said, referring to the location where protests were underway. Students and university graduates were mobilized, and were already beginning to assemble.

I felt a surge of hope within me – maybe this time it won't only be women who protest. Maybe this time everyone will raise a voice to say no to violence. It will finally be everyone's concern, everyone's anger.

It was, and it is. What occurred at India Gate that day and the sustained outrage since then are unlike anything I have witnessed before.

Those speaking out now are not solely women and activists from women's organizations – the usual suspects. There are men. There are college students. There are every day residents of Delhi. At ICRW, we have always said that violence against women is not a women's issue; it is everyone's issue. Think about it: if half your population doesn't feel safe to participate in society or is too battered to go to work, how can you truly build a strong economy ?

In Delhi, where I've lived my entire life, people finally appear to be realizing this. The young woman's horrific fate, I believe, has triggered a turning point for us, and as a society, it's time for India to step up: The police must intervene when they witness or are alerted to violent acts against women and move quickly to arrest perpetrators. They must take seriously women's reports of violence, instead of shaming them, as is common practice. The justice system must act swiftly.

Even as calls for action and protests continue to ensure that recent legislative recommendations for stricter sexual violence laws are not diluted, or misinterpreted in a hastily drafted ordinance, it is time for serious introspection for each one of us. As a society, we have to begin shifting our antiquated notions about men's and women's roles. We need to begin with our youth , in schools and at home to debunk stereotypes that drive gender inequality and violence. We must continue speaking out and groom the next generation to value non-violence, respect and equality in our everyday lives.

Let's not lose this moment, India. Let's create a society where no woman feels afraid to leave her home – or stay in it.

Read More
ICRW Survey: 95 Percent of Women and Girls Consider New Delhi Unsafe

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