On December 16, 2012, a 23-year-old physiotherapy student was gang raped by six men on a New Delhi bus. After beating her male companion unconscious, the assailants raped the woman while beating her with a metal rod. One attacker, only seventeen years old, reportedly tried to rip the woman’s intestines out with his bare hands. Once the assaults were finished, the men threw the woman and her companion out of the moving bus, and the bus driver, who was one of the rapists, attempted to run the woman over. Fortunately, her friend, who had regained consciousness, pulled her off the road. Unfortunately, though, she could not escape the damage she sustained during her assault. She succumbed to internal injuries in a Singapore hospital on the 29th of December. 
Sadly, this incident is part of a terrible pattern in India, New Delhi in particular. Last year, over 600 rapes were reported in that city alone—keep in mind that surveys taken about rape (though done in Western countries) show that only about one in twenty incidences are ever reported to the police. If that estimate is correct, then up to 12,000 women were raped in New Delhi last year. Of the cases that were actually reported, only once was the alleged perpetrator convicted. This means that last year only 0.167% of those committing sexual assault were punished for their crimes. Apathy towards sexual assault prevention is endemic.
To explain this phenomenon, we have to understand rape within its cultural context. In India, the most common (Hindi) phrases used in reference to sexual assault can be transliterated as “izzat lootna.” Its literal translation is “to steal the honor of.” Another Hindi word used for rape, “balatkar” (or “bad act”), is considered too academic to be used in common discourse. Despite an economic surge in which millions of women have entered the workplace and found independence, discussion of sexual assault still focuses around a misogynistic concern for female sexual purity and reserve. The foundational texts of Indian culture — the Ramayana and the Mahabharata— both revolve around the communal outrage that results from insults to a good woman’s modesty. Rape, in this schema, is not so much an assault upon a woman’s body and soul, but one against traditional views of honor. According to some accounts, attachment to the patriarchal tradition is still strong enough to even engender sexual assault. An Indian author named Kishwar Desai has advanced the claim that:
“a certain class of men is deeply uncomfortable with women displaying their independence, receiving education and joining the work force…[R]ape becomes a form of subduing the women, collectively, and establishing their male superiority.”
Sadly, those in charge of protecting women from violence are often those who help propagate the problem. Throughout India, police forces are horribly undermanned, almost exclusively male, and poorly paid. Oftentimes, police officers depend upon the bribes of the rich to make a living, and many of these officers serve their patrons, rather than the citizenry. While not directed to act against the interests of women, the nature of the police force leaves its officers at the mercy of masculine cultural norms. Countless reported rape cases have been “resolved” when police officers deliver rape survivors into the hands of the abusers to reach an honor-saving settlement. Unsurprisingly, most of these cases end with unpunished perpetrators and shamed victims. Just ten days after the Delhi bus gang rape, a Punjabi woman committed suicide after police officers spent five weeks refusing to arrest the men who were suspected of gang raping her. The police, instead, were pressing her to marry one of the men. As a result of this pervasive police attitude, New Delhi’s promise to station night-time constables at 300 bus stops around the city has not been met with fervor. In fact, many women say that the presence of police officers makes them feel less safe than before.
In light of the recent spate of sexual assaults and the failures of the police, the Indian government has hurried to enact new legislation to address the rape problem. On February 3, Indian President Pranab Mukherjee signed a new set of criminal laws into effect. It is now a crime for a police officer to fail to investigate a sexual assault claim. Further, legal and judicial officers cannot consider a victim’s previous sexual experiences as evidence in a criminal trial. In addition, the amended penal codes strengthened punishment sentences, including adding a new offense of “gang rape” which is punishable by over twenty years in prison. Most controversial of the amendments is the introduction of the death penalty for serious repeat offenders and for sexual assaults that result in death or “persistent vegetative states.”
One major flaw in the new legislative push is the focus on just criminal proceedings. Addressing civil rights issues through law will be instrumental in creating the social changes that will make future India a better place for women. The laws also fail to rid the de facto legal immunity for members of state forces who have been accused of rape. Perhaps most importantly, the new criminal code failed to include marital rape as a category of punishable offenses. Currently, wives cannot bring a charge of “sexual assault” against husbands except under extremely narrow grounds: where she is “living separately under a decree of separation or under any custom or usage.” Seeing as domestic abuse constitutes a large percentage of rapes, the failure to criminalize it leaves millions of women open to violence for which they have no redress. So while India’s new laws have taken an important step in fighting sexual assault, there is still much more to be done.
As articulated earlier, however, social conventions have as much, if not more, influence on rape culture than do laws. India’s major project for the future, then, must focus on how sexual assault is viewed by society. That is a monumental task that cannot occur overnight. Still, based off the public uproar and demand for change, there is a sliver of hope. In time we may see an opening up of discourse on tolerance and respect. In time, we may see attitude changes about gender roles and inter-gender relations. Hopefully, the flurry of publicized violence can have a silver lining. Hopefully, it will lead to a change in the rape culture.
Zack Kleinbart is a senior studying Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the University of Pennsylvania. He hopes to become a constitutional and public advocacy lawyer.