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How India Is Fixing Its Rape Culture — and Why There’s Still a Long Way Left to Go

Nearly three years after the brutal gang rape in Dehli that sparked a national conversation about sexual assault in India, there has been both progress and a backlash.
Photo by Piyal Adhikary/EPA

On the evening of December 16, 2012, a 23-year-old physiotherapy intern named Jyoti Singh and her male companion hopped on a private charter bus in South Delhi's Munirka neighborhood. They had just watched the film Life of Pi and thought they were headed home for the night. They never made it.

Six joyriders had commandeered the bus and tricked Singh and her friend into getting on board. The men, including one minor, locked the doors, dragged Singh to the back of the vehicle, beat and penetrated her with an iron rod, and repeatedly raped her. She and her friend, who was also beaten unconscious, were ultimately thrown from the moving vehicle. Singh was hospitalized, but she ultimately died from her injuries on December 29, 2012.


The brutal attack broke the silence that had been pervasive around rape in the country, opening a floodgate of discussion about violence against women in the country, according to experts who spoke to VICE News.

"There's a conversation about rape in India that you'd not been hearing very loudly before," Michael Kugleman, a senior scholar in Asian studies at the Wilson Center, told VICE News. "People are more likely to come forward now and report rapes when they happen. They see that it is starting to get attention and it is starting to be condemned."

But two years later, activists and scholars say there has been only moderate progress to change the longstanding social mores that lead to rape in India. Grassroots activists and organizations have, however, made persistent attempts to educate women and make some changes to India's sexual assault laws.

Related: Meet Priya, a Comic Superhero Fighting the Social Stigma of Rape in India

Krupa Shandilya, a women's studies professor at Amherst, cited a theater troupe that performs in the streets of Delhi showing scenes of violence and encouraging the crowd to join in condemning rape and domestic violence. She also touted the creation of a women's police department that answers calls from women in distressing domestic situations. Both efforts, Shandilya told VICE News, have helped women take steps to report rape and discuss it. There has also been an early childhood education campaign to teach young boys and girls that they are equal, she said.


"That incident [in Dehli] was the tipping point in making people aware that it's not okay," Shandilya said.

Earlier this year, outspoken activist Sunitha Krishnan began reposting videos of rape that had been shared on WhatsApp, blurring the faces of the victims and highlighting the faces of the attackers before putting them on YouTube with the hashtag #ShametheRapistCampaign, which she says has resulted in at least two arrests.

In a blog post, Krishnan explained that she wanted to use the videos to request investigations from the police, spur the government to create a task force to tackle sexual crimes, create an anonymous public system for citizens to report sexual assault, and set up a national sex offenders directory. Krishnan declined an interview with VICE News, but pointed to the blog post for her reasoning behind the campaign.

Krishnan was criticized for posting the videos, with other activists warning that the footage could inadvertently inspire or excite other potential offenders, as well as put the victims in greater danger. She has since taken them down, but has still continued to pressure police to investigate the men in the videos, posting their photos as wanted posters on her Twitter timeline.

Related: Woman's Death After 42 Years in Coma Highlights How Rape Is Still a Huge Problem in India

— sunitha krishnan (@sunita_krishnan)April 4, 2015

Kugelman said the videos showed the difficulty of raising awareness around a topic as sensitive as rape.


"I think that it certainly has potential as an awareness raising tool, even after a number of years of protests and attention being brought to this epidemic in India, it still needs to get more attention, but it's a very bold step of uploading images and videos that could potentially be galvanizing people who otherwise would not be aware," Kugelman said. "It's the epitome of possibly going either way."

There have been moderate legislative gains in protecting women in the Indian judicial system, experts said. The government expanded the legal definition of rape and increased sentences for convictions, but also refused to criminalize martial rape, citing India's cultural heritage that understands marriage differently from the West. Despite the stronger laws, women in India are still at great risk for violence.

Related: India's Government Doesn't Seem to Care That Husbands Can Legally Rape Their Wives

Delhi police registered 300 reports of rape and 500 reports of molestation in the first two months of 2015, according to the Times of India, a trend that put the Indian capital on pace to more than double the number of such incidents from the previous year. The uptick has been attributed to increased awareness and willingness to report sexual assaults, but it's widely believed that most rapes still go unreported because victims fear retaliation and humiliation.

"I'm inclined to say there's much more openness and reporting in certain sectors, and perhaps some less stigma, but what hasn't changed is the social consequences, the violence which is burdened on women not the men," Priya Nanda, the New Delhi-based director of Social and Economic Development at the International Center for Research on Women, told VICE News.


Nanda said that there is not enough sustained political will in India right now to demand legislative changes, and that the government should spend more of its resources educating its citizens in order to prevent rapes from occurring.

"There's not enough engagement with the issues," Nanda said. "What we do is tend to focus time to time on a particular rape, then there's the diagnosis of that rape, and we move onto the next one."

Kugelman also said there has been a backlash by some men in the country, with violent attacks targeting middle-class women who were seen as having too much freedom.

"At the end of the day it is still very much a common occurrence in India, it continues to happen," Kugelman said. "India has a very long way to go before it has addressed this issue of rape."

Follow Colleen Curry on Twitter: @currycolleen

Watch the VICE News documentary Bangladeshi Gang Rape

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