Is India a Safe Place for Women?

On the evening of December 26th, 2012, 23-year-old Jyoti Singh and her friend Awindra Pandey were heading back home from the theatre when they spotted a bus and hailed for a ride. Unaware that the bus was privately rented out for the evening by a group of intoxicated men out on a joyride, the two boarded the bus in the southern part of New Delhi. Without warning, both Singh and Pandey were beaten by the men with an iron rod. The men then proceeded to strip Singh naked and take turns raping her on the moving bus. After the horrific event, the two were thrown off the bus with their clothes and belongings taken from them.

Two weeks later, Singh died at the Mount Elizabeth Hospital in Singapore after suffering from brain injury, cardiac arrest, and lung and abdomen infections. The New Delhi gang rape is only one of countless crimes carried out against women each day across India. Indeed, the recent violence targeting women has caused an even stronger uproar for the protection of women’s rights in the country. With the Indian government scouring for ways to implement stricter laws, one must ask how this can be achieved when the traditional and patriarchal views of the majority continually hinder such progress.

According to the Thomson Reuters Foundation charity, TrustLaw, India stands as the fourth most dangerous country for women, trailing only behind Pakistan, the Congo, and Afghanistan.  Over 100 million women and girls are estimated to be involved in human trafficking, and 50 million girls are said to have gone “missing” throughout the past century due to female infanticide and feticide.[1] The numbers are staggering, and unfortunately, this comes as no surprise to those familiar with the history of women in India.

Injustices against women peaked between years 1000 and 1819. Throughout the ages, women have been considered the property of their fathers or husbands who require protection from the many different conquerors of the Indian subcontinent. In the name of their “protection,” women were kept restricted to the house, unable to travel to other villages, and were watched at all times. Eventually, these practices caused a vast majority of the population to develop the idea that women were a burden to others.

History tells horrific stories of age-old practices forced upon women in medieval India, such as Jauhar and Sati. Jauhar was considered to be an act of surrender in which women burned themselves in order to protect their honor, while the men went off to fight a battle they would undoubtedly lose. Sati was performed after the death of a man significant to a woman. It involved her joining him, even in death, as the couple burned together with the funeral pyre. Indeed, long gone are these practices that once haunted the lives of millions of women in India; however, the legacies of patriarchal ideology are still present in the minds of many to this day.

Today in India, the Indian National Congress has done a considerable amount to protect women by passing laws such as the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961 and the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1976, which prohibited dowries to be exchanged upon marriage and established a minimum age of 15 for a woman to be married, respectively.[12] Despite passing these laws, the government has failed to fully implement them, as evidenced by the rampant crime rates witnessed throughout India.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), Delhi is now considered to be the “rape capital” of India, where 31.2% of crimes that occur are against women, which include rape, dowry killings, abduction and sex trafficking. In another NCRB statistic, in 2011, 24,206 incidents of rape were recorded.[2] However, what is even more disturbing is that many more cases go unreported due to traditional views of family honor. Indeed, to many Indians, the shame of being a victim of a crime outweighs the justice that any victimized woman deserves.

Professor Aziza Ahmed of Northeastern University’s School of Law, who specializes in human rights as well as sexual and reproductive health, explained in an interview with the Review that a woman in India today faces a variety of challenges depending on her social and economic background. While a poor woman in a rural area could be worrying about violence in the course of “accessing water, sanitation and food,” an “upper middle class urban woman may see herself as vulnerable to violence while she socializes with friends or travels around the city at night in public transportation.”

The commonality is that all women seem to be subject to violence in their specific environments,  “but it is not exclusive to India,” Ahmed said. “This happens to women everywhere.” Regarding the Delhi rape case, Ahmed noted that what made it “stand out for people” was both the brutality of the crime and that the 23-year-old victim “represents a new kind of woman in India,” one that goes to school, works, has “opposite sex friendships” and travels around the city using public transportation. Many people saw the rape as an attack on women in urban India who are claiming and reclaiming social spheres for themselves.

Indian women’s rights groups claim that protecting women has never been a political priority. Ranjana Kumari of the Centre for Social Research told reporters, “The government is not putting money to implement the Protection of Women Against Domestic Violence Act. The finance minister doesn’t have time for us. We wanted to meet him.”[3] Without a doubt, if there was one thing that the New Delhi rape case did for the women’s rights movement in India, it strengthened the unity of activists and appears to have woken up the ever-evasive government.

The Indian National Congress (INC) has been the ruling party since 2002 with Presidents Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, then the first female president Pratibha Patil in 2007, and the current president of India, Pranab Mukherjee.[4] [5] [6] The INC was founded in 1855 and became India’s dominant political party under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister and leader of the Indian independence movement alongside Mahatma Gandhi.[7] Under the leadership of Sonia Gandhi since 1998, the INC’s Home Ministry established a three-member panel in December 2012 to address the issue of violence against women immediately after the New Delhi gang rape.

With retired Chief Justice J.S. Verma, the panel found that it was not that India lacked the laws to protect women; it was more so that those laws were not properly enforced. Now it is recommended that police and officials who ignore reports of violence against women be punished. “Failure of good governance is the obvious root cause for the current unsafe environment, eroding the rule of law, and not the want of knee-jerk legislation,” Verma said.

Other suggestions of the panel included the outlawing of voyeurism and stalking, as well as the appointment of more judges, stating that this would “ensure swift justice.”[8] The report also mentions the recognition of marital rape and compensation for medical expenses for rape victims. Most notably, the commission urges nationwide campaigns on the education of women’s rights and gender equity. The panel reported that public interest was high, with over 80,000 suggestions received by the commission.[9] The demand for change must be met.

After the rape case was made public in December, thousands filled the streets of New Delhi, protesting alongside women’s and student groups despite a citywide demonstration.[10] Protesters were attacked with tear gas and water cannons, and some were even beaten with bamboo sticks, but these actions only made the people more dedicated to their cause.

The protests and outcries of organizations and ordinary citizens for gender equity and the protection of women continue to echo all around the nation. Even several months after the New Delhi rape case, people are still waiting for the INC to fully implement the recommendations on the 650-page Commission report.[11]

Today, hundreds of millions of women in India fear for their lives and those of their families and friends. In order to gain the trust of its people, the Indian government needs to prove to both the country and the world that its patriarchal roots are far behind it by properly executing laws that have already been passed. In order to succeed in this objective, it is imperative that the government paves the way toward having more female leaders involved in the reform process.

It is clear that with 1.2 billion people living in India, the vast majority of the country has proven to be unable to enforce change in regard to the equal treatment of women. It is now up to the women in the country to take a stand and to become far stronger than they have ever been before. Millions of women and young girls previously forced to believe that they are the burden to society now have the opportunity to see that just a few thousand miles away, women in other countries live freely and happily, protected by their governments.

Women are an integral part of any society, and it must be recognized that they are critical to any nation’s productivity. Now is the time for Indian women to maintain momentum and awareness until tangible change is implemented from Indian megacities to the most rural farms.

Kaoru Inoue
Journalism ’17



[1] TrustLaw. (2011, June). The world’s five most dangerous countries for women.
[2] National Crime Records Bureau. Chapter-5 Crime against women.
[3] Indo-Asian News Service. (2013, Jan 22). NGOs seek higher funding to curb domestic violence.
[4] Times News Network. (2002, Jun 11). NDA’s smart missile: President Kalam. The Economic Times.
[5] Pradhan, B. (2007, Jul 19). Patil poised to become india’s first female president
[6] Malik, S. (2012, Jul 25). Pranab Mukherjee sworn-in as 13th president of India.
[7] Bevir, M. (2013, Feb 09). Theosophy and the Origins of the Indian National Congress. University of California, Berkeley.
[8] George, N. (2013, Jan 23). Indian panel pushes new laws after fatal gang rape.
[9] Yardley, J. (2013, Jan 23). Urging action, report on brutal rape condemns India’s treatment of women. The New York Times.
[10] Harris, G., Mandhana, N. & Timmons, H. (2012, Dec 23). Protests over rape turn violent in Delhi. The New York Times.
[11] Mandhana, N. (2013, Jan 23). Report on India’s sexual assault laws mixes scathing criticism with proposed changes. The New York Times.

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