New Delhi - While a 23-year-old woman battles for life in a New Delhi hospital after she was gang raped and brutalised on a moving bus in India’s prosperous national capital earlier this month, women across the nation say they live in constant fear of sexual assault.
The incident sparked widespread protests across New Delhi, with huge numbers of women and even school children braving police batons, water cannons and teargas shells in a wave of public fury.
Anti-rape walks in other Indian metropolises were more peaceful but the turnouts spoke volumes.
Many protesters say they are stalked by the fear of sexual assault each time they venture out of their homes, while rights activists charge that India is devoid of a proper system to deter offenders.
In a nation of 1.2 billion people, where official crime statistics say a woman is raped every 28 minutes, women’s groups say law enforcement and prosecution measures are abysmal.
“The country simply has no infrastructure to protect its women or punish their attackers with investigation and speedy trials,” Sukanya Gupta, coordinator of Swayam, a Kolkata-based women’s rights organisation, told IPS.
“Six decades after independence, we will no longer tolerate these (crimes). The chain of fear must be broken,” she stressed.
Women feel unsafe in big cities, while in rural India rape is rampant, with the victim herself often at the receiving end of punitive laws.
According to a survey released in December by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM), 92 percent of working women say they feel insecure, especially during the night, in all major economic hubs across the country.
Among the metropolitan areas, New Delhi topped the list with 92 percent of women respondents complaining that they feel unsafe, followed by 85 percent of women in Bangalore and 82 percent in Kolkata.
Women say they feel insecure working in key industries like information technology, hospitality, civil aviation, healthcare and garments.
The study by ASSOCHAM Social Development Foundation (ASDF) is based on the feedback received from both working and non-working women.
The random survey of women in the Delhi National Capital Region, Mumbai, Kolkata, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, Pune and Dehradun found that 100 percent of women respondents feel that the problem of women’s insecurity is bigger than any other challenge currently facing India.
ASSOCHAM Secretary General D. S. Rawat told IPS, “Female employees remain extremely concerned and anxious (for their own security) even in places like hospitals.”
Poor infrastructure and response
ASSOCHAM says a highly effective and responsive GPS system is required to reach out to distressed women using public transport.
To provide safety and security to their employees, especially females, companies and firms should provide small security devices to their workforce to preempt attacks.
Other experts have recommended measures like police verification of cab drivers’ identification.
According to the ASSOCHAM survey, the key issues that contribute to women feeling “unsafe or uncomfortable” are poor lighting, no access to emergency assistance and inadequate police security.
Women’s groups in Kolkata, where many were shocked after a woman was raped inside a car by a group who accosted her on the city’s sunset boulevard Park Street back in February, say they are fed up with this “insensitive system”.
“Close to Kolkata, a suburban town called Barasat has gained notoriety for periodic assaults on women and yet there is no proper deployment of police (to assist) girls reaching home safely,” according to Gupta.
“There is a total lack of action and that encourages the men to be aggressive towards women,” she added.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau statistics for 2011, West Bengal reported 12.7 percent of total cases of crime against women in the country, accounting for 29,133 out of a reported 228,650 crimes registered across India.
The Park Street rape victim, who spoke out on TV channels after the most recent Delhi incident, says she is still awaiting justice, with two accused absconding and the trial yet to begin.
Rape law and trial lacunae
According to Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research (CSR) in New Delhi, India needs to immediately review its rape laws and the definition of rape itself.
“An amendment to the law has been pending for seven years. The new amendments have been prepared after lots of consultation but the government is not serious about passing it in Parliament,” she told IPS.
“Our rape laws do not define rape adequately. They talk only about penile penetration. There should be an increase in punishment, too, and economic assistance to a raped woman should not be called ‘compensation’,” she added.
“We are also against any kind of reconciliation between the rapist and the raped. Some estimates say 100,000 rape cases are pending in various courts. We have a count of 40,000. But irrespective of the figures there is a need to fast track the cases in special courts,” said Kumari.
India’s young citizens also want to see changes in the laws.
A student group in Kolkata, which recently drew about 6,000 citizens to a rally after the Delhi rape, says it will continue to demand a change in the system and the country’s laws.
Altamash Hamid (21), a student in the mass communications department in the city’s ivy league St. Xavier’s College, who led the Kolkata march, told IPS, “We want to keep the movement going and petition the President of India to change the rape laws, inculcate the fear of law in people and provide more security on the streets.”