No one could have failed to have been horrified by the gang-rape and murder of a 27-year-old vet in Hyderabad, India, ambushed as she made her way home. Nor would anyone doubt the anguish felt by her family, or her father's sentiment that "justice was done to my daughter, at last" on hearing that the four suspects had been shot and killed by police while allegedly trying to escape. The rape and murder, almost exactly seven years after a 23-year-old student was attacked by a gang on a bus in Delhi and died from her injuries, sparked a national outpouring of rage, exacerbated by a profound sense of how little has changed in the interim years to better protect women. The torment felt by the victims' families has reverberated on a national scale and manifested in protests in major cities.
But what has been disturbing are the scenes of jubilation at the deaths of the four suspects. Despite the suspicious circumstances around the shootings during a reconstruction of their alleged crime, and the suggestion they might have been subject to extrajudicial killings, known in India as "encounters", there have been celebrations across the country with police officers garlanded and fed sweets for what is being seen as swift, decisive justice being served. So strong is the nationwide sentiment that the father of a rape victim in Unnao, set ablaze last Thursday by her five alleged attackers while on her way to a court hearing, has urged for "Hyderabad-like justice", implying he would like to see those responsible for her assault and death subjected to the same treatment. This business of baying for blood shows how little faith Indians have in the judicial process and how badly reforms are needed to better protect victims of sexual assault.
Seven years after physiotherapy intern Jyoti Singh was beaten, tortured and raped by a gang of six men in Delhi, dying a few days later, little seems to have changed for women in India. Despite thousands of people pouring onto the streets at the time, calling for better security and protection for women, the incidents in Delhi, Hyderabad and Unnao are reminders of the challenges millions of women face every day simply trying to get home. According to a survey last year by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, India is the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman. Figures show there are nearly 100 rapes a day and while government statistics put rape cases at just more than 32,000 in 2017, the actual figure is thought to be a lot higher as so many sex crimes go unreported because of the shame attached to victims.
Following the 2012 Delhi incident, there were protests across the country that led to anti-rape laws being overhauled. The death penalty was introduced for the crime of raping girls under 12. Nevertheless, a sense of impunity persists, aided by attitudes towards women, resulting in the prevalence of a rape culture – two words that should never go together. The Hyderabad attackers targeted the vet because they saw that she was alone and unprotected, first deflating her scooter tyres, then luring her to a remote spot with the promise of help. In the Delhi assault, the convicted bus driver Mukesh Singh blamed the victim for being out late at night. “A decent girl won’t roam around at nine o’clock at night,” he reasoned. “A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy.”
Gender-based violence is not unique to India; it is simply one of the worst examples of a global problem. According to the World Health Organisation, one in three women has been beaten, coerced into sex or abused, most often by someone she knows. The report said: "The impunity enjoyed by perpetrators, and the fear generated by their actions, has an effect on all women and girls. It also takes a toll on a global level, stunting the contributions women and girls can make to international development, peace and progress."
South Africa, where attacks on women and femicide have risen alarmingly in recent months, is also failing to make them feel safe. In one such incident in August, 19-year-old student Uyinene Mrwetyana was raped and murdered by a post office worker while collecting a parcel. Yet last week South Africa's social development deputy minister, Hendrietta Ipeleng Bogopane-Zulu, said women bore some responsibility for gender-based violence and femicide. "Let's not deal with women as [if] they are only victims, they are also contributors," she said at a conference called Prevention of Violence Against Women and Girls in Southern Africa. "We raise angry boys. We are equally guilty, we all contribute one way or another to the status we find ourselves in," she added.
In Sierra Leone, the issue of women’s safety has reached such a critical point that in February the president declared sexual violence a national emergency, following an attack last year on a five-year-old girl. She was paralysed from the waist down after being raped by a 28-year-old uncle, crushing her spine. “We as a nation must stand up and address this scourge,” president Julius Maada Bio said at the time.
This malaise runs deep in some societies. In the Indian subcontinent, an entrenched patriarchal system is a factor. More than a lack of education, there is a lack of will to instil in boys from a young age the notion that girls are not there to serve their needs but must be treated as equals and with respect. Greater awareness can begin to challenge long-held ideas about societal roles and subjugation.
Nor is this India’s problem alone. In neighbouring Pakistan, there are an estimated 1,000 so-called honour killings every year. In June last year, 19-year-old Mahwish Arshad was shot dead in Faisalabad after refusing a marriage proposal. Meanwhile the country has seen a spate of girls as young as five being raped and murdered, including six-year-old Zainab Ansari, whose body was found on a rubbish heap after she was abducted on her way to a Quran recital.
Societies across the world struggle with gender-based crimes. Too often, women are blamed for provoking their attackers, whether by their choice of clothes or their behaviour. And the stigma often prevents victims from reporting incidents. One reason is the warped notion of a woman’s honour, particularly in places such as India and Pakistan. The fear that no one will marry a woman who has been raped can be pervasive throughout different strata of society. While these issues are not exclusive to the subcontinent, they play a huge role in violence against women.
Then there is the fear of a cases that will drag on for years, which goes some way to explain the celebratory scenes on the streets of India. Yet despite the initial outcry when such incidents happen, it rarely results in significant change. After the candlelit marches and the calls on social media for justice – real justice, not extrajudicial solutions to an ongoing problem – what then? Assurances from politicians that things will change ring hollow because they say the same thing on repeat. The candlelit vigils do not change the numbers. More women than ever before in urban India are commuting to work. They deserve to know they will be safe when they do so.
But until entrenched patriarchy and misogyny are addressed and the authorities step up security, women will keep being afraid and looking over their shoulders. It is a slow process to change mindsets. That will not happen overnight, particularly when Indian politicians like Mulayam Singh Yadav defend sexual harassers with lines like “boys will be boys – they make mistakes”. Until those attitudes to women change, this will, tragically, not be the last incident of its kind.
Nivriti Butalia is an assistant comment editor at The National