NEW DELHI – Last December’s fatal gang rape of a 23-year-old woman in New Delhi triggered an unprecedented public outcry in India. Tens of thousands of citizens took to the streets to demand an end to police indifference to women’s safety, stronger laws, and speedier trials for those charged with crimes against women. The protests launched a countrywide movement, spurring nonstop media coverage of women’s issues. So, has significant change followed?
Within eight days of the rape, a special commission, led by former Supreme Court Chief Justice J.S. Verma, was established. The commission’s roughly 700-page report, completed in only 29 days, urged the government to take swift, far-reaching action. Among the report’s recommendations were stronger penalties for sex crimes, including harassment; a requirement that police officers report every instance of alleged rape; and broader measures to address pervasive discrimination against women.
India’s government responded two weeks later, announcing a new ordinance that not only expands the definition of rape, but also makes behavior such as groping, stalking, trafficking, and voyeurism serious criminal offenses. But, as the commission’s report highlighted, India does not lack laws intended to deter sexual violence against women. Rather, amid widespread ignorance and apathy, government and law enforcement have lacked the motivation to administer existing laws adequately.
The recent explosion of long-dormant public outrage should be a tipping point, precipitating genuine progress toward a more equal society. But designing effective policies to diminish the obstacles confronting women and girls requires measuring the prevalence of the attitudes and habits that limit their potential. If the recently enacted laws are to have the intended effect, Indian society must reject discriminatory mindsets and practices.