Nirbhaya. Four years later: what’s changed?

Four years have passed since the brutal New Delhi gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh in 2012.


The world condemned her treatment after she was coerced onto a private bus and suffered unspeakable injuries at the hands of her six attackers.

Such a high profile case in the international media highlighted a broader, pertinent truth about the attitude towards women globally, in Asia and in particular across India; something needed to change.


And it did.

Over the last four years, India itself has started seeing many revolutionary changes to how women are treated both legally and societally.


The weeks following the attack saw huge protests and demonstrations globally, calling on the Indian government to change laws and kill the endless bureaucratic processes that prevent female victims from wanting to report crimes in the first place. Subsequently, the Nirbhaya attack was the first time ever a case of its kind was fast-tracked.


Yet we are still witnessing increased rates of violence towards women in India and we are still relentlessly hearing about new cases. Just this summer, a 25 year old woman was abducted and gang-raped in a moving car in South Delhi by three men as she returned home.


This is not unusual.

Police figures show a rape is reported on average every 18 hours in New Delhi, which The New York Times described as “India’s rape capital.”  


Within the last week, we’ve witnessed the Delhi Government’s former minister for Women and Child Development sacked for rape allegations. So what changes has the country really seen in light of the Nirbhaya attack, and are they sufficient to shift attitudes?


Laws have changed

Changes in the legal process now make it easier to report and convict rape. Amendments have been made to the Indian Penal Code, Indian Evidence Act and Code of Criminal Procedure for laws in relation to sexual offences.

This already has helped protect women from sexual violence and sped up the previously lengthy procedure in punishment.


We can talk about it

Speaking about violence against women has remained a taboo for many years in India. Dozens of international and Indian leaders publicly deplored the Nirbhaya attack which opened up the stigmatized topic for discussion.

Prime Minister at the time, Manmohan Singh noted that there was “‘justified anger and anguish at the ghastly crime of gang-rape committed”. Arguably, this is one of the most influential items of change, as it lies at the root of shifting the cultural attitudes that are so often responsible for violent attacks.


Recognition of women in positions of power

Despite India being one of the few countries globally to have had a woman prime minister, a terrifyingly low percentage of women possess positions of power. The government spoke out about this in light of the attack and stated they’d be actively recruiting more women police officers. Currently, female police officers in India make just 6% of the entire force.


Women have a voice

Shortly after the 2012 attack, the former Chief Justice of India appointed a committee to submit a report suggesting amendments to criminal law on how to deal with sexual assault in India. Among others, the committee urged women, the general public, women’s groups and civil society to share “their views, knowledge and experience suggesting possible amendments” on laws regarding women’s safety. They received more than over 80,000 suggestions.


So, what changes are we yet to see?


The laws still have a long way to go

Marital rape is still not recognised as a crime in India. Neither can any military personnel be tried under criminal law for accusations of sexual offences.


Ingrained attitudes of people in power

Changing laws is futile in making an impact on the ingrained societal attitudes of high profile influential political leaders themselves if they continue to support outdated patriarchal norms. Amitabh Bachchan highlighted these ingrained issues in an emotional open letter he wrote to his granddaughters, in which he states that “it’s a difficult, difficult world to be a woman”.


The ‘she’s asking for it’ mind-set still exists

Shaming a woman for upholding her freedom of choice in clothing still remains throughout India. One of the six rapists from the Nirbhaya case outright blamed women who are raped for “wearing the wrong clothes”. Similarly a top elected official of Haryana, Manohar Lal Khattar later held women liable for crimes committed against them. “If a girl is dressed decently, a boy will not look at her in the wrong way. Freedom has to be limited. Our country’s tradition asks girls to dress decently.”

Crimes against women are increasing

Assault is still a part and parcel of life for women in India. According to the Indian Council on Global Relations most women in India have stories of sexual harassment and abuse on public transportation or on the streets. A survey conducted by the International Center for Research on Women revealed nearly 25% of Indian men admitted to committing a sexual assault. And these are just reported figures.


Evidently then, we see progress has been slow in confronting the issue. Drastic solutions have arisen such as the creation of the Nirbheek – India’s first gun marketed at women.


But this treats the symptom not the cause.

In a country that continues to face sex-selective abortions, it’s obvious that the attitudes need to continue to change as much as the policies, which was highlighted Kamla Bhasin, an advisor at Sangat, an Indian feminist network, “Laws alone cannot bring lasting change”.
Women shouldn’t have to carry weapons in order to feel safe in India.

India shouldn’t have to implement multiple new laws to prevent people committing rape; people should not commit acts of brutality because they don’t want to partake in an unacceptable crime, not because they’re legally obliged not to.

The change we’ve seen since Nirbhaya has been vital, but it is only beginning to scratch the surface. Changing the exploitative culture towards women in Indian society, and indeed the world can only happen through a complete shift of education and attitude.

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