India’s Issues on Rape

The brutal gang rape of a woman in India on December 17th sparked outrage in India and across the globe.  Thousands of people took to the street in protest of the prevalence of rape in their country where a rape is reported every 20 minutes on average.[1]   Even more sadly, this graphic highlights how significantly underreported rape is compared to other crimes, especially in India.

Sexual assault reporting

This case has shown a spotlight on the problem of rape in India, especially in Delhi.  Massive protests demonstrated societal recognition of a wider social problem, rather than a response to a single, gruesome incident.  These problems include police apathy, corrupt justice systems, and the difficulty of reporting crimes and accessing services in addition to cultural factors like a deeply ingrained bias against women.   However, translating this recognition into real change is much more difficult.

Long-term engagement on these issues is needed, not merely short term outrage and politically visible responses.  The UN Women’s report Progress of the World’s Women 2011–2012 highlights the type of engagement necessary to increase the likelihood that women will report these crimes and reduce attrition throughout the judicial process.   The report describes the ways in which the justice chain often fails female victims of sexual assault and domestic violence around the world.  Barriers to justice include a lack of confidence in the judicial system, a lack of autonomy in household decisions, legal costs, distance to access services, and language barriers.  The report goes on to describe solutions which have demonstrated effectiveness in improving women’s access to and success in the justice chain around the world. These include one-stop shops and legal aid, female service providers like police, prosecutors, judges, and specialized courts.  One stop shops integrate services and “cut the number of steps that a woman has to take to access justice”.[2]   Data from 39 countries show that the presence of women police officers correlates positively with reporting of sexual assault.[3]  However, women make up less than 20% of the police force in India (and, notably, in the United States as well).[4]  

In the aftermath of this crime, India has taken steps in the right direction.  On January 5th, India’s Home Ministry announced that it would recruit 2,500 female police officers in Delhi.[5]    In addition, Parliament called for tougher punishments for sex crimes, created two commissions to review laws regarding sexual assault, and is now considering fast-track courts for all sexual assault cases.  However, fast-track courts only affect those crimes which have been reported; changes to sentencing only affect those crimes which have proceeded to prosecution and conviction.  As we have seen, only a small percentage of cases even make it to the reporting stage.   Additional female police officers are essential and hopefully enough funding will be made available to extend this recruitment drive beyond Delhi.

These types of solutions require more than lip service; they require sustained political will, funding, and a change to long-held cultural ideas.  The death penalty for these 5 perpetrators, or for all convicted rapists, alone will not make India’s women safer from sexual assault.  That will require much larger reforms which are difficult to achieve.  Although the media may focus a disproportionate amount of attention on the specific verdict from this case, we must watch India for a much more robust response than this.


[1] “India’s gang-rape victim’s father:  Hang the ‘monsters’ responsible”.  ABC News online.  3 January 2013.

[2] World Development Report:  Gender Equality and Development”.  The World Bank.  Washing, D.C. 2011.  17 September 2012.   Page 57.

[3] “World Development Report:  Gender Equality and Development”.  The World Bank.  Washing, D.C. 2011.  17 September 2012.  Page 59.

[4] Ibid, 167.

[5]   “Friend of India Rape Victim Criticizes Police Response”. Wall Street Journal online.  5 January 2013.

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