Despite its position as the world's largest democracy and second most populous country, India has typically turned a blind eye to the crimes of rape and sexual assault against women and girls, with police and government authorities doing little to bring perpetrators to justice. But when the violent gang rape and beating of a 23-year-old medical student resulted in her death in December 2012, the nation experienced a watershed moment as massive demonstrations forced a seismic shift in societal attitudes toward gender-based violence.
According to various news sources, after watching a movie at a mall on December 16, the unnamed student and a male friend boarded a bus in New Delhi, the nation's capital, where she and her companion were attacked and savagely beaten by six men who had been drinking and were reportedly on a "joy ride." The woman was gang raped and violated with an iron rod, causing extensive internal injuries. After nearly an hour of rape and physical assault, the young woman and her friend were stripped and thrown from the bus and left to die on the side of the road.
Hospitalized after the attack, the victim underwent three abdominal surgeries before being airlifted to Singapore on December 26 due to the extent of her injuries. Admitted to Mount Elizabeth Hospital with significant brain injuries and infection of the lungs and abdomen, she took a turn for the worse on the evening of Friday, December 28. At that time, the hospital's chief executive Kelvin Loh characterized her condition as "deteriorating, with signs of severe organ failure." She died from her injuries the following morning.
In a country long inured to violence against women, the horrific nature of the attack broke through the apathy and despair, with thousands of protesters taking to the streets in New Delhi and other cities across India. Yet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and other government officials were slow to respond to the incident, with Singh waiting a week before making any public comment. The apparent insensitivity of the 80-year-old leader and his ruling Congress party sparked even greater outrage.
New Delhi has frequently been characterized as the nation's "rape capital." Reuters reports, "New Delhi has the highest number of sex crimes among India's major cities, with a rape reported on average every 18 hours, according to police figures. Government data show the number of reported rape cases in the country rose by nearly 17 percent between 2007 and 2011." A global poll conducted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation earlier this year concluded India is "the worst place to be a woman because of high rates of infanticide, child marriage and slavery."
Rapes in India remain drastically underreported. In many cases, families do not report rapes due to the stigma that follows the victim and her family. In other instances, families may decide not to report a rape out of frustration with the long delays in court and harassment at the hands of the police. Police, themselves are reluctant to register cases of rape and domestic violence in order to keep down crime figures or to elicit a bribe from the victim.
Two days after the December 16 attack, BBC News Delhi correspondent Soutik Biswas observed:
The mistreatment and abuse of women is a particular problem in Delhi and northern India. A stiflingly patriarchal social mindset, a brazen culture of political power, a general disdain for law, a largely insensitive police force and a rising population of rootless, lawless migrants are only some of the reasons....[N]othing really changes for Delhi's women. "It is as if there is a silent conspiracy in this city," a woman friend says, "to keep the women scared." They say they are not safe anywhere, at home, on the streets, on a bus, on the new metro system, nowhere really.
Even as the nation came together to protest the heinous crime, violence against women and girls continued unabated. From the Associated Press via CBS News:
As protests raged in cities across India, at least two girls were gang-raped, with one of them killed.
Police on Wednesday fished out the body of a 10-year old girl from a canal in Bihar state's Saharsa district....[who] had been gang-raped and killed....
Elsewhere, a 14 -year old schoolgirl was in critical condition in Banka district of Bihar after she was raped by four men, said Jyoti Kumar, the district education officer.
The men have been identified, but police were yet to make any arrests, Kumar said.
Biswas, Soutik. "Women's tales from brutal Delhi." BBC News India. 18 December 2012.
"Brutal India gang rape triggers outrage." The Associated Press at CBSNews.com. 19 December 2012.
Colvin, Ross and Kevin Lim. "Death of India rape victim stirs anger, promises of action." Reuters.com. 29 December 2012.
"India gang-rape victim shows signs of organ failure." Reuters at Guardian.co.uk. 28 December 2012.
Lim, Kevin and Satarupa Bhattacharjya. "India Gang Rape Victims Surviving Against The Odds: Hospital." Reuters at HuffingtonPost.com. 28 December 2012.
Timmons, Heather and Niharika Mandhana and Sruthi Gottipati. "Six Charged With Murder in India as Rape Victim Dies." NYTimes.com. 29 December 2012.