How to talk about the sexual violence in India

Rape protest ... an Indian woman shouts slogans outside the residence of Delhi state government Chief Minister Sheila ...

Rape protest ... an Indian woman shouts slogans outside the residence of Delhi state government Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit. Photo: AP

Two weeks ago, two young girls from India’s northern province of Uttar Pradesh wandered into the fields near their home to relieve themselves. They were set upon by at least three men, who gang raped them, strangled them and then left them hanging, dead, from the branches of a mango tree. The crime was shocking not just for its sexual violence, but for the contemptuous arrogance shown to the girls’ bodies even in death.

The two girls were cousins, aged 14 and 16, and both members of the impoverished Dalit caste. In India’s hierarchal caste system, the Dalit are referred to as the ‘untouchables’ - literally, the bottom of the bottom. India’s National Crime Records Bureau has said that more than four Dalit women are raped every day across the country - and these are just the ones who report their assaults.

Meanwhile, Dalit Media Watch reports that two Dalits are assaulted, murdered or have their homes torched every hour throughout India. But Pratap Kumar, a Dalit rights activist, says, “The national figures are grossly under reported since many cases of rape of Dalit women are not even registered. Conviction is a distant dream for many.”

Demonstrators hold candles during a prayer meeting for a five-year-old rape victim in Jammu April 20, 2013.

Demonstrators hold candles during a prayer meeting for a five-year-old rape victim in Jammu April 20, 2013. Photo: MUKESH GUPTA

When the girls’ bodies were found, angry protesters from the village of Katra Sadatganj gathered around the mango tree for 15 hours in protest over the authorities’ failure to act. The powerful statement was captured and shared on news outlets around the world, the image rapidly becoming a symbol for everything we think we understand about the proliferation of sexual violence and misogyny in the populous country of India. Five people have since been arrested for their role in the murder including two local policemen. Two further suspects are still at large.


These external impressions of a country in crisis aren’t helped by the response of some of the political leaders who’ve weighed in on the issue. Babulal Gaur, a member of India’s ruling political party, recently stated that rape is “sometimes right, sometimes wrong”. Gaur is the Home Minister of central Madhya Pradesh state and is responsible for law and order.

Describing it as a “social crime which depends on men and women”, Gaur’s comments have caused understandable outrage in a country which is struggling to combat a political indifference towards sex crimes and the subjugation of women. The comments came only a few months after Mulayam Singh Yadav, a prominent politician in Uttar Pradesh, commented that three young men convicted of raping two Dalit women didn’t deserve a death sentence because “boys will be boys”.

A water cannon is used to stop people protesting over the rape and murder of two girls.

A water cannon is used to stop people protesting over the rape and murder of two girls. Photo: Reuters

Whether or not you support the death penalty or not is irrelevant - the excusing of sexual violence as a matter of a boy’s raffish urges is reprehensible, particularly when expressed by a political leader in a position to influence social policy.

But while it would be easy to catalogue instances of India’s abuse and indifference towards women and use it as evidence of the country’s more entrenched misogyny, it wouldn’t be entirely accurate. Misogynistic violence is certainly a problem in India and it is perhaps allowed to proliferate a little more easily due in part to its expansive size and massive population, but violence against women isn’t confined to that country alone. And while it might be addressed in an infuriatingly light handed way by authorities, the response from the public is often anything but.

It was only at the end of 2012 that Jyoti Pandey Singh, a 23-year-old student, was brutally gang raped while travelling on a bus in Munirka, South Delhi. Singh’s suffered internal injuries so severe that she died in hospital thirteen days later. Her murder prompted nation-wide outrage; tens of thousands of people - women, men and children alike - marched across India in protest of the continued violence faced by women and children in India and the weak judicial treatment of rapists.

Two Indian teenagers were raped and hung from a tree.

Two Indian teenagers were raped and hung from a tree. Photo: AP

As a result of the public outpouring of anger and grief, new laws were introduced to mete out harsher penalties for rapists. From something truly heinous and gut wrenching came change - and it was the public which demanded this.

In 1972, a teenage girl was raped by two policemen in Kolkata. The girl, Mathura, was an adivasi - a member of one of the Indigenous tribes and accorded similar status to the Dalit. At this time, it was considered shameful to be the victim of rape (indeed, it still is in many parts of the world, not just India).

Despite her lowly social status and the mores of the time, Mathura pursued her case in court. After her attackers were found guilty, India’s High Court decided Mathura was lying and overturned their convictions. It was a terrible blow for a woman who had bravely taken on the establishment against the odds.

But Mathura’s case did spark nationwide change. It spawned a women’s movement, members of which would march eight years later to implore the High Court to reconsider Mathura’s case. Those who protested in favour of Mathura were instrumental in bringing about the reform of sexual assault laws.

And 40 odd years later, it was that same power of public outcry which led to the nation seeking political and judicial justice for Jyoti Pandey Singh. I suspect that with this latest horrific case of sexual violence in Uttar Pradesh, further change will be wrought not only for women but also for Dalit rights.

So while it’s tempting to wholly condemn a nation when you hear of these things, it’s shortsighted. Much of India’s citizenry has proven themselves not only committed to changing laws to support women, but also to lending their voices to one very loud cry in their favour.

Activist groups around the country battle tirelessly to bring the plight of violence against women to the public’s attention. These are actions we’re still yet to see in parts of the West we like to pretend are enlightened and progressive, where we are so used to having stories of rape cast through the eyes of the ‘promising young men’ who commit it that we are surprised to hear of a community that actually rallies behind a victim.

Does this mean that India is a utopia of public equality? Absolutely not - no country or culture is. The whole of humanity and its history has been party to a war on women.

But together, the people of India ARE rising to bring change and liberation to everyone. Misogyny is a splinter whose root we cannot always see - but with the right pressure, eventually even the gnarliest of thorns can be pushed out to make way for healing.



  • I would agree with much of this. Humans are not born civilised but are capable of evolving more civilised modes of behavior. It takes consciousness raising generally through tragedy to bring about deep shifts in attitude which are required here. Shifts in not only attitudes towards women but also in relation to caste. But sexual assault will simply never be eradicated, civilisation is but a thin veneer which breaks down rapidly when there is reduced investment in each human being or during social upheaval. Great to see India demanding better, sad that it takes these brutal attacks to bring about change.

    Date and time
    June 10, 2014, 7:10AM
    • Thank you Clementine for such a respectful and well balanced perspective. I am an "Aussie" girl married to an Indian man and more often than not people have very judgmental, preconceived ideas about my husband and his view of women, purely because he is Indian. They could not be further from the truth as he has nothing but respect and admiration for all women. Many men I have met in India are the same and are fighting alongside women for change. We are often very judgmental of others while ignoring similar problems in our own back yards; Australian culture and bureaucracy doesn't have a great track record with their treatment of women either. Misogyny is a global problem that simply manifests itself differently in various cultures (and yes, more terrifyingly in some places than others) but still remains a daily battle for most women around the world.

      Date and time
      June 10, 2014, 9:40AM
      • What a great article,
        Now if only the same logic was applied by the author to events that happen in Australia and Western countries in general instead of the selective reporting and cherry picking of anecdotal data that usually passes for in depth journalism.

        Freddie Frog
        Date and time
        June 10, 2014, 11:59AM
        • The same logic is applied to 'events' that happen in Australia and has so for along time which is why rape is completely unacceptable. It is a travesty that it appears to be accepted in other parts of the world as almost normal or not worth worrying about too much. Rape isn't an event either BTW its a crime.

          J Walker
          Date and time
          June 10, 2014, 12:50PM
        • @J Walker there are no cultures which accept rape as a norm. Do you know of anywhere where it is not considered a crime?

          Date and time
          June 10, 2014, 2:04PM
      • Clem, an update to this story I read online last night was that the police now believe only one of the girls was sexually assaulted and that both may have been the victim of honour killings, which implicates their families. Further to this, the police also implied that the 5 men already charged may in fact be innocent.

        The whole thing is horrible either way, but if their families are responsible that makes what is already heinous, even more so.

        At my desk
        Date and time
        June 10, 2014, 12:27PM
        • Not sure I can bring the same hope for change as the author. It seems there are too many within India who have a near medieval view of women as property. The fact that Dalits and the caste system still has much sway in the country is another issue that looks like it will take many generations more to overcome.

          Until the country's leaders all voice their condemnation over these heinous acts, where they actually go out of their way to actively helping to improve the lot of the untouchables, I doubt much of benefit will occur for those at the bottom.

          It might be better if the people marched more regularly, shaming and condemning those who's views are at odds with civilised society, rather than reacting to each new outrage. Change is hard. The USA still at times struggles with it's racial issues, Australia too. In some ways the struggle is constant and there's always more that needs to be done.

          Date and time
          June 10, 2014, 12:31PM
          • Didn't India shame Australia in the international media after some students were attacked not so long ago? Didn't Australia get labelled as being racists? Even though the vast majority of us do not condone, accept of participate in these atrocities and our laws and policing pursued each and every case to the fullest extent. All violence is ugly and unacceptable regardless if it is against a woman, a man or child. Gender or race are irrelevant in a perfect world. But I don't believe we can get on our high horse and judge others. Just as other have no right to judge and label us. If you feel compelled to react then may I suggest compassion and forgiveness.

            Aussie Bob
            Date and time
            June 10, 2014, 12:42PM
            • A nicely penned article and well delivered - certainly food for thought and a good warning against jumping to conclusions. One minor point though, 1972 was 40 years ago, not 50 as stated in the article.

              Date and time
              June 10, 2014, 12:48PM
              • I wish I could believe India was doing something about this problem, the upper classes who have control of politics there have been saying this for years, but nothing appears to be happening i feel.

                If countries can suddenly up and find money for war, why can't they find enough money to supply half of the population with a toilet, as in india where around half of their population does not have one, and this is why these two poor girls ended up being attacked in this shocking situation?

                Date and time
                June 10, 2014, 12:52PM

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