A woman gets raped every 20 minutes in India, according to government figures. Yet while in the last couple of years the country’s notorious sexual violence record has sparked worldwide furor and angry protests, few women expect the ongoing election to change anything on that front.
India’s rape problem finally caught the world’s attention in December 2012, when 23-year-old Jyoti Singh Pandey — or Nirbhaya, “the fearless one,” as local media nicknamed her before her identity was revealed — was horrifically assaulted on a bus, beaten, and gang-raped. She died from her injuries 13 days later.
A nationwide movement against rape
The case shocked the nation, igniting countrywide vigils and rallies against government and police inaction, as well as clashes between protesters and police.
The student’s brutal death brought the spotlight to an issue countless Indian women had been all too aware of — sexual violence in India is a fact of everyday life, and victims are regularly shamed or threatened into silence, while their abusers go unpunished.
Some women had been speaking out on the issue for years.
In rural Uttar Pradesh, in 2006, Sampat Pal Devi, a mother of five and former child bride, started a women's movement to combat domestic violence, protect disenfranchised victims, and punish oppressive husbands, fathers, and brothers.
The group, who became known as the "Gulabi Gang," or "Pink Gang," after the trademark hot pink saris they wear, now numbers thousands of members, and is the subject of the VICE on HBO documentary Pink Gang Rebellion, which screens tonight.
More recently, the public outcry over Nirbhaya’s death has encouraged dozens of victims to come forward and report abuses they previously kept quiet.
Public indignation over sexual violence has not, however, brought the number of abuses down.
“Reported rapes in India have risen 900 percent over the past 40 years,” VICE News correspondent Gelareh Kiazand says in the documentary, which explores India’s rape crisis in the capital as well as the countryside, where a majority of India’s population lives. “Reports of rape in Delhi have doubled since the bus gang rape. But sadly, Delhi might be as good as it gets in northern India, because in the rural countryside they have even less law and order…. Most of them don’t even get reported.”
As India prepared to stage its massive, nine-phase, six-week election — currently in its fourth week — the issue of women’s safety was nominally addressed by candidates for all three major parties. But hardly enough, critics said.
"There are too many issues in India, and women as a constituency are not really given that much importance," Neelima Goel, a woman close to the Gulabi Gang, told VICE News. "Initially, one of the parties did make a little issue of it, but it didn’t get that much attention, it wasn’t really a big issue in this election.”
While polls found the problem to be a priority for India’s voters, that urgency was hardly reflected by the politicians hoping to run the country.
“You do hear, across the spectrum, the candidates talking about the need to protect women, making cities safer for women,” Rebecca Reichmann Tavares, UN Women's Office Representative for India, told VICE News. Tavares pointed out a large number of women in campaign imagery, then cautioned: "But it’s very much at level of rhetoric. It isn’t clear whether that translates into any policy proposals that are concrete, or even strong campaign platforms.”
The lip service paid to women's issues is hardly convincing to Indian women.
"There was such a well-organized mobilization across the country after the rape of December 2012," Tavares added. "Ever since then, there have been a lot of demands from civil society to political leaders and the government to respond."
But if the government’s record on implementing the slow reforms it has passed is any indication, women can expect little to change after the vote.
“It is unfortunate that the issues of women safety are missing in these Indian elections,” Karuna Nundy, a senior supreme court lawyer said at a conference in Delhi earlier this month, calling for better leadership against sexual violence. “The issue of patriarchy runs deep within our system and is the root cause of all challenges women face today. Each of us has a role to play in destroying this system and the government must lead the initiative.”
“A poll says 91 percent of voters believe sexual violence must be an election priority,” Nundy added, referring to a recent survey by the Marketing and Development Research Associates and Avaaz, an online campaigning community, which also found that 75 percent of respondents were dissatisfied with the electoral promises to tackle gender inequality made in the election campaign. “Women's safety is the second biggest concern for Indians after corruption. Why is it, then, that government after government have to be pressured to address these concerns?”
Nundy was one of the women behind the “Womanifesto” — a six-point, five-year plan detailing priorities to advance the safety and equality of women in India, including the right to education, swifter justice, and police accountability, as well as the implementation of existing laws protecting women’s rights.
So far, only the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has pledged to implement the manifesto’s recommendations, though other parties have proposed their own agendas for women’s advancement.
But making laws count — particularly when it comes to women — is one of the main problems.
The outrage over Delhi’s bus gang rape gained the defendants in the case the death penalty and forced India’s government to pass some reforms last year, including expanding the definition of rape, addressing workplace sexual harassment, listing stalking as a crime, and prescribing harsher punishment for perpetrators.
Women rights advocates said this fell short on many counts — they did not, for instance, criminalize marital rape.
But the main problem, they continued, is that passing laws does nothing if the laws are not enforced.
Yet with 388 million women — or 47.6 percent of voters — eligible to cast a ballot, candidates have made sure they court this near-half of the electorate.
The videos below show women — and some men — rallying across the country after the gang rape. The last video shows a similar protest held outside Bangalore, after a 22-year-old student was raped there in June 2013.
Women's turnout at the polls has increased in recent state elections, and while many used to cast their votes according to their fathers' or husbands’ political preference, that has been changing.
“India can be a superpower only by empowering women,” said Rahul Gandhi, who leads the ruling Congress party’s national campaign. Narendra Damodardas Modi, the rival Bharatiya Janata Party’s candidate for prime minister, in radio ads promised “security to every mother and daughter.” And the leader of the recently established AAP said that women’s safety is the election’s “biggest issue.”
But those campaign promises mean little, critics said, because if reform is slow to come in politics, it is even slower to roll out in practice, as the nation’s patriarchal mentality is hard to crack.
Implementation needs to be a priority, they said — starting from police and judiciary systems that are often corrupt and anti-victim.
“The law will become a deterrent when the law will be used,” Vrinda Grover, a human rights watch lawyer in Delhi, says in the Pink Gang Rebellion documentary. “When a rape survivor walks into the police station, the officer tells her, ‘you come into that room, open your salwar, and show me where you have been raped.'… So how is she going to take this battle, individually, when the entire system is structured against her?”
"This is the real challenge, changing the mindset, even of those that are in charge of implementing the laws," Tavares agreed. "Until the people who are in charge of protecting women’s rights actually do that, all the good laws in the world will not make a difference.”
“Most political parties are talking about better protection of women’s rights during the campaign,” Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, told VICE News. “However, what will be important is informed efforts for systemic change, and we hope that the new government will take steps in that direction.”
“This includes proper implementation of laws, including those to protect women from domestic violence and workplace harassment, creating a responsive police force, witness protection and proper legal and medical counseling services."
Women in politics
Part of the problem is that there simply aren’t enough women in Indian politics.
The world’s largest democracy is also one of the worst when it comes to women’s representation, with only 11 percent of seats in the Lok Sabha — the country’s lower house — filled by women.
In the current election, fewer than a fifth of candidates standing for one of the two main parties are women and the numbers go down to one tenth when other parties are included.
For more than 15 years, politicians across the spectrum have opposed a languishing Women’s Reservation Bill, which would designate a third of parliamentary seats to women. The three leading parties have promised to consider the bill — "but when you actually get down to voting on it, after the elections are over, it just doesn’t seem to make it through,” Tavares said, adding that a greater representation of women in Indian politics is a priority.
Not surprisingly perhaps, there’s also a whole lot of chauvinism and misogyny in Indian politics.
A politician recently came under fire for dismissing rape as a boyish “mistake” while another said women who have premarital sex should be hanged. Modi himself — one of the favorites in this election — joked in the past that Sonia Gandhi, the president of his rival Congress party, doesn’t know “how to run a kitchen.”
Women campaigning in the current election have also reported abuse — including rape — and UN Women has documented widespread sexual violence in politics, an issue barely acknowledged in India.
“It’s kind of a puzzle given that we do have strong women leaders and have historically had strong women leaders in India,” Tavares said. "But the representation of women in the political parties is low, and there are a lot of barriers to women’s leadership."
Some, like the Gulabi Gang, have taken matters in their own hands. Change, they say, won't come from the ballot box.
"It’s very complex, and it was not an issue in this election, but it’s not only up to the politicians,” Goel said, referring specifically to sexual violence. "There are laws in the country, but it’s just so engrained in the social structure… Implementation has to come from the people."
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi