As India gang rape trial ends, a debate over what has changed

September 9, 2013

The serial rapist stalks her for days. Eventually he breaks into her home when she is alone and tries to rape her at knifepoint. But she somehow manages to overpower and trap him.

Now, with the help of her two housemates, she has to decide what to do. Kill him and bury him in the garden? Or call the police, who are known to be insensitive and may let him off?

The plot is from “Kill the Rapist?” – a provocative new Bollywood thriller which aims to embolden Indian women to report sexual assaults – and to deter potential rapists by making them “shiver with fear before even thinking of rape” the film’s Facebook page says.

Controversial? Yes, but it is part of a growing awareness in India about violence against women since the high-profile fatal gang rape of a 23-year-old student on a bus in December.

“Like most Indians, I had become used to hearing about rapes and other crimes against women. I would read about them, then turn the page and forget,” says Siddhartha Jain, the 39-year-old producer of “Kill the Rapist?”

“But the December incident shook me to the core. I didn’t want this just to be another story that would be forgotten in a year. My film, which will be released on the anniversary of the incident, is an excuse to amplify the discussion of women’s security and hopefully bring about some positive changes.”

The brutal assault on the trainee physiotherapist jolted tens of thousands of usually apathetic urban Indians, who took to the streets in December and January to protest about the poor state of women’s security, throwing a global spotlight on a country where a woman is raped  every 20 minutes.

Nine months on, as the country awaits the verdict – expected on Tuesday – on four men accused of the crime, the protesters have left the streets but the case has had a more lasting impact on Indian society. (Update: Four men convicted and sentenced to death)

Newspapers and television news stations have stepped up their coverage of gender crimes, social media sites are raging with debate and even Bollywood stars and cricketers are joining campaigns to promote women’s safety.

Social commentators say the issue – once only debated by groups such as civil society activists, feminists and academics – is now gaining ground and is being discussed by the urban middle class.

“I think the conversation has changed, there appears to be much more sensitivity towards gender issues now from many quarters,” says Santosh Desai, a columnist and author of “Mother Pious Lady: Making sense of Everyday India”. “Before, it was always a discussion between one small group of people and another small group of people. Now for the first time it is coming into the mainstream and the conversation isn’t just dying down after a few days, it is being sustained.”

This has not resulted in women feeling any safer in India, activists say, but it has helped to break the silence surrounding crimes against women in this deeply patriarchal country.

Police in New Delhi, for example, believe a rise in reports of rape is due partly to an increased willingness on the part of victims to come forward. More than twice as many rapes have been reported so far this year as last year, they say.

“SOCIAL TRIGGER”

Analysts attribute much of the growing awareness to the Indian media, which they say has voraciously, and not always responsibly, covered the Dec. 16 assault and its aftermath.

A study of six news channels found that in the two weeks after the attack they had carried 546 news stories and devoted 194 special programmes and 7,541 minutes of air time to it.

Most prominent newspapers were devoting an average of one to three pages daily to the story, according to the study by the Delhi-based Centre of Media Studies (CMS).

“The media played the role of a social trigger on this whole issue. This case created an overflow of emotions and became the tipping point for Indian society when it came to the subject of violence against women in the country,” says the CMS’s Prabhakar Kumar.

“There have been hundreds of stories on gender violence in the aftermath and there is little doubt that it helped in breaking the silence which often surrounds victims in this very conservative society.”

Sonia Singh, editorial director and president of the ethics committee at NDTV, a popular English language national news channel, agrees.

“It was a turning point for us in the sense that we found our audience became much more receptive to these stories. As a result, we are reporting more, giving these stories higher prominence in our news agenda and also broadcasting more debates,” says Singh.

Social media analysts say that even with only 10 percent internet penetration, sites such as Twitter and Facebook have been abuzz with debate. Bollywood actors and cricketers with millions of fans have also tried to be part of the conversation.

Last month, Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan carried out a pledge he made after the Delhi gang rape, by placing his leading lady’s name before his own in the opening credits of his blockbuster film “Chennai Express” – to promote the idea of respect for women in a male-dominated film industry.

Other actors have gone further, setting up initiatives such as Men Against Rape and Discrimination or MARD (meaning man in Hindi) to teach young men about gender equality, and enlisting the support of popular cricketers like Sachin Tendulkar.

BREAKING THE SILENCE

Social commentators note that the heightened awareness of sex attacks on women is a largely urban affair, and has not really touched the conservative rural masses who make up 70 percent of India’s 1.2 billion people.

“Since it happened, there have been continual protests over rape cases in Delhi as well as other parts of the country and people have come out in greater numbers than ever before,” says Kavita Krishnan, Secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association.

“This shows that there is a more sustained interest in this subject and people want action on such issues. Also, we saw more men than ever come out to support the women’s movement for change. That is the biggest takeaway from this.”

From New Delhi to cities such as Mumbai, Kolkata and Manipal, a wave of protests has erupted over rape cases, forcing authorities to take action.

In June, for example, the abduction and gang rape of a university student in an auto-rickshaw in the southern city of Manipal led to protests by hundreds of students, prompting the police to launch a manhunt for the three attackers. Hundreds of police officers were deployed and around 5,000 auto-rickshaw drivers were questioned, leading to the arrest of three suspects.

The new willingness of rape victims to report the attacks, despite feelings of fear and shame, is equally significant, police say. Around 40 percent of the country’s rape reports are recorded in Delhi, they say. Police data show that 1,036 cases of rape were reported in Delhi this year to Aug. 15, against 433 in the same period last year, while reports of molestation jumped to 2,267 from 381.

Film-maker Siddhartha Jain says it is important to keep the conversation going so that more women and girls come forward.

“Rapes are happening all the time and we just don’t know about them. Students are raped by their teachers, young children by their uncles and neighbours but they are scared and keep quiet,” he says. “Using tools like film and the media to spark discussion, maybe they will find the courage to stand up and tell their stories so that these things can never happen to others.”

(Additional reporting by Shyamantha Asokan in New Delhi and D. Jose in Thiruvananthapuram)

MORE ON THIS STORY:

Women still feel unsafe in India’s rape capital

Timeline of events: The Delhi gang rape case

Women and New Delhi: the views of travellers

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