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

The case of Aruna Shanbaug, who was the victim of a brutal attack in 1973, helped change India’s euthanasia laws, but sexual assault is still pervasive in the country.
Photo par Rajanish Kakade/AP

Aruna Shanbaug was in her mid-20s and a nurse at Mumbai's King Edward Memorial Hospital in 1973 when a fellow hospital worker strangled her with a dog chain during a brutal rape that blinded her, caused irreversible brain damage, and left her in a coma. She died this week, 42 years after the attack, and while her case helped change India's euthanasia laws, the country still has a pervasive sexual assault problem.


Shanbaug, 66, was laid to rest Monday at an emotional ceremony performed by members of her family, nurses, and other staff at KEM hospital, according to the Press Trust of India news agency. Her nephew and the hospital's director reportedly lit the funeral pyre under her body, which was covered with wreathes of bright flowers.

According to hospital workers, Shanbaug developed pneumonia and was placed on a ventilator as her health severely deteriorated in the days before her death. A debate about the ethics of keeping her alive by force-feeding swirled around her during the more than four decades she spent in a hospital bed.

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Much of the discussion was precipitated by human rights activist and author Pinki Virani, who wrote a book about Shanbaug titled Aruna's Story: The True Account of a Rape and its Aftermath. Virani argued vehemently that the former nurse should be allowed to die with dignity, recounting how Shanbaug appeared to recognize pain when doctors tried to straighten out her limbs, which sometimes curled as a result of her "atrophying bones" and "wasting muscles."

"She lies in bed with hands and feet flexed. Splints are being used to assist in keeping her limbs straight," Virani wrote. "Sometimes she goes into a fetal position. Cries loudly, weeps softly. Laughs manically. Alternates between laughing and crying. Also has spells of screaming which can last up to two hours."


The nurses who cared for Shanbaug refused to euthanize their friend and former colleague, and India's Supreme Court rejected Virani's efforts to stop the force-feeding in 2011. Nevertheless, the case opened up a wide-ranging debate that eventually led to the legalization of passive euthanasia in India.

The same year the Supreme Court rejected Virani's petition, the judges issued landmark ruling that other terminally ill patients could be removed from life support in exceptional circumstances.

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"Our Aruna has given our country a big thing in the form of a law on passive euthanasia," Virani told Zee News TV channel after Shanbaug's death this week, according to AFP.

Virani began writing her book after discovering that Shanbaug's attacker was never convicted of rape, and instead served shorter sentences for assault and robbery.

In the years since the attack, numerous high-profile cases have highlighted the lack of arrests and prosecutions of rapists in India. In the nation of 1.2 billion, a rape is thought to be committed every 22 minutes, according to official Indian government statistics.

In 2012, the fatal gang rape of a 23-year-old woman on a bus in Delhi sparked outrage both in India and abroad. In 2014, public outcry about the case of two girls, 14 and 15, found raped and hanging from a mango tree in India's northwestern state of Uttar Pradesh, prompted police to arrest four suspects. According to local reports, police initially sought to protect the attackers.


In recent months, the decision by Indian officials to ban a BBC documentary on the Delhi bus rape backfired, setting off more debate in traditional and social media.

This week, women's rights activist Kavita Krishnan, who leads the All India Progressive Women Association, told Al Jazeera that a "widespread rape culture" in India has only "gotten worse" in the years since Shanbaug's attack.

"Women have become extremely vulnerable to violence," Krishnan said, adding, "Much remains to be done to change this culture."

"I hope while we remember her we also have a serious discussion about the safety of women not just at work but at home and on the streets," she said.

Related: Creator of Banned Rape Film Wants Debate in India to Shift from Censorship to Sexual Violence

Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields