As a revolution continues to swell in the wake of the sexual assault of an Indian student, a solutions-focused debate brews around the globe
The brutal gang rape of a 23-year-old female student on a bus in New Delhi has sparked protests on an unprecedented scale, and may even lead to important changes in the law.
On 16 December, physiotherapy intern Jyoti Singh Pandey was abducted, falsely imprisoned, raped and died of her injuries 13 days later. The shocking incident has ignited fierce debate about the high level of rape crimes in India, which includes the possibility of links with infanticide of girls.
According to Saimo Chahal, partner at London law firm Bindmans LLP, the gang rape has unleashed a “virtual revolution in India,” an outpouring of support and coverage which is also forcing the UK to question inadequacies in its own justice system.
Chahal told The Positive: “The rates of rape are very high in India, but they are also unacceptably high in the US and in this country, amongst others. That is not to say that this is not the perfect moment to try and achieve real change in enhancing women’s rights and in reviewing the protection provided to women by the law in India.”
She believes there are solutions. “Employing more women police officers and investigators for rape cases, having codes of conduct about how such crimes are investigated, the availability of counselling to women who have suffered sexual assaults, and an education programme encouraging women to report these crimes are all important.”
Sanhita Ambast, India campaigner with Amnesty International, said the incident is forcing people to ask the right questions. “There is a very narrow band of offences considered as rape in India and a whole range of sexual assaults are not prohibited by that.” She added: “The other problem is how consent is understood. In Indian law, there are certain forms of rape and sexual assault not covered by laws — marital rape, for instance.”
The conviction rates for rape in India, according to recent statistics, are below 30 percent, which means in over 70 percent of reported rapes (which are probably under-reported) the perpetrators remain unknown. Yet Ambast is cautiously optimistic.
She said, “It’s difficult to predict how the Indian government will react, but it has made public commitments and is speaking about introducing new laws. We’ll see in the next couple of months how seriously it takes them. This mobilisation has seen protests and demonstrations take place globally.”
Amrit Wilson is chair of Imkaan, the national Black, Minority Ethnic and Refugee (BMER) charity dedicated to addressing violence against women and girls. She said she has never before witnessed such wide-scale protests on the matter of rape. “This has had an effect on everybody, not just India,” she said.
Moreover, Wilson believes that it has mobilised people in Britain, too — creating an ‘If they can do it, we can’ attitude. “That’s the feeling we’re getting, it really is. We need to remember, there are lots of links between India and Britain. We can be inspired by the way these protests have developed and gained momentum to the extent they have almost become a movement.”
Aruna Kashyap, Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, believes time will tell whether the front page stories lead to concrete reforms. She revealed that “The Indian government has set up a three-member committee to review its laws and recommend reforms by the end of this month.”
Human Rights Watch is campaigning for specific measures in India, which include the criminalisation of a full range of sexual assaults in accordance with human rights law, such as marital rape. They are also proposing that police officials be held accountable if they fail to investigate complaints of sexual assault and that Indian authorities introduce a uniform protocol for the treatment and examination of sexual assault services.
“The New Delhi gang rape has underscored the importance of tackling sexual assault not just in India but in every country. There have been protests in South Asia and beyond, giving sexual assault the kind of serious attention it deserves,” said Kashyap
According to the Indian government’s own figures, a woman in the country is raped every 22 minutes. Perhaps the world’s reaction to one of the most harrowing examples of this to date will mean talk of reform and that the empowerment of women will become a legal reality.