Last month, the unnamed 23-year old was raped and brutally beaten, allegedly by a group of six men on a bus moving through the nation’s capital, New Delhi. Thrown from the bus with her 28-year-old male friend, who was also severely beaten, the young woman was taken to a nearby hospital, then flown to a facility in Singapore where she died two weeks later. The two had been out in the early evening watching the movie “Life of Pi.”
In a recent survey conducted by TrustLaw, the G20 countries were ranked in terms of the best and worst places to be a woman. Based on indicators such as access to health care and education, equality of opportunity and levels of gender-based violence, India came in solidly in last place. Canada topped the list, while the United States placed sixth.
These findings at first appear surprising for a country that has been advancing politically and economically for decades, with a constitution that guarantees equal rights for women and where a number of high-profile government positions are filled by females. Yet the reality in India is quite different, and it appears this latest incident might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back and leads to major social reform.
India has long been, and remains, a very male-dominated, patriarchal society that largely sees women as second-class citizens. Rape is only one aspect of this culture where many men see the opposite gender as “fair game.” Beyond this, women are subject to widespread prejudice, violence and often denied equal access to health care, education and proper nutrition. In 2010, the International Center for Research on Women found that 44.5 percent of Indian girls are married before the age of 18, often sold off to become domestic servants, while many others simply disappear, presumed victims of India’s massive human trafficking and sex slavery industry.
Furthermore, the promotion of men over women has led to the widespread abortion of female fetuses and the killing of baby girls. The resulting imbalance of males to females has compounded the trafficking of women to serve as wives in regions such as Punjab and Haryana where the number of boys exceeds that of girls by as much as 35 percent, according to National Family Health Survey.
If change is to come to India regarding its perception and treatment of women, it must be now, and it must address the deep-rooted social factors that cause such attitudes. Increased prosecution for rape and violence is necessary, but will not do enough to prevent the ongoing subjection of women.
Admittedly, this change will not be easy. Despite the fact the leader of the ruling government party is a woman, as is the speaker of the house and three chief ministers, misogynistic attitudes pervade the political system. The Financial Times reports that over the last five years, almost 300 candidates for elections have faced allegations of crimes against women. Even worse, six current state legislators have pending rape charges against them.
Despite the deep social ills that plague women in India, there are positive signs. New legislation seeks to crack down on those involved in sex-selective abortions, while proposals have been made for more CCTV cameras and gender sensitization lessons for schoolchildren. Meanwhile, five of the six accused of the recent attack appeared in court this week and, if found guilty, will face the death penalty. The sixth, age 17, will appear before a juvenile court.
As with any change in deep cultural attitudes, this will be a slow process with many inevitable failures along the way. And while this young woman’s case is only one of many thousands in India, the untypical public outrage that has resulted may be enough to drive reform.
As a key economic and diplomatic partner, the United States should encourage India to reform from the top down. As the largest democracy in the world, India is only going to grow more vast and increase its global power position. As this happens, the U.S. and others should gently but assertively ensure that India’s progress accounts not merely for economic success but also social and political development. Certainly this is not to suggest greater imposition of Western values on a non-Western nation, but the rape and murder of women in any country should be considered abhorrent.
If any good can come of this heinous incident, it is that world attention has been brought to the plight of women in India (and beyond). Hopefully this attention will not fade from our minds, but rather lead to real, positive action. Too long have we overlooked the ills of this world in favor of inaction.
But as William Wilberforce, the great Englishman who led the campaign to end the slave trade, once said, “You can choose to look the other way, but you can never say again that you did not know.”