The brutal rape of a 23 year old female medical student on a public bus in Delhi on 16 December has caught India by storm.
The woman was raped by seven men and violated with iron bars. She died later from her injuries. The attack has sparked a wave of protests that are continuing across India.
It has received unprecedented coverage, possibly because the victim was seen as urban middle class. Yet many rapes in rural villages and poorer areas are ignored or covered up.
One such case was that of a 17 year old from Patiala, Punjab. Her original complaint of rape took 14 days to be registered by the police, who then harassed her. She later took her own life.
Sexual harassment, violence against women and rape are common in India. They have strong roots in the country’s institutions and the state.
The army and police use rape to try and destroy movements that threaten the Indian state, such as those of the Naxalite peasants and nationalists in Kashmir.
Officers often blame women for rape—focusing on things like how they were dressed or whether they were drinking alcohol.
The police have used water cannon, batons and tear gas against demonstrators to try and quell the new protest movement.
But the protests continue—more than two weeks after the attack. They have become highly political as many demonstrators don’t trust the politicians to bring real change for women.
Rape is only one aspect of women’s oppression in India. The practice of “son preference” has led to high levels of infanticide. Eight million female foetuses have been terminated in the last decade alone.
There is rampant sexualisation of women through Bollywood film and other culture. This isn’t a symbol of progress—it’s another factor that encourages the objectification of women.
Some people want to see the death penalty brought in as punishment for rape. But this won’t solve the problem. And it is highly unlikely that it would be meted out to police, politicians and other elites.
The dire situation women face in India has led some Western pundits to described the country as the worst place in the world for women.
But the problems aren’t confined to India’s borders. Many countries, including Britain, have shockingly low conviction rates for rape. And attitudes that blame women for rape and sexual violence aren’t confined to India.
“Slutwalk” protests erupted around the world after a Toronto police officer told women to change their dress to avoid rape in 2011.
The latest attack in India shows the urgent need for a change in the treatment of women and in responses to rape. And the mass protests that followed it show that many people are prepared to fight for that change.