Preventing Violence Against Women & Girls: New Delhi

Violence against women comes in many forms, existing in varying degrees across all cultures and countries. Among other ways, violence against women happens through intimate partner violence, rape and sexual coercion, human trafficking, and infanticide (for a broad review, see Watts and Zimmerman, 2002). In this post, David Mayeda begins a 3-part series examining cases of violence against women from 2012 that happened in India, Pakistan, and the United States. First off, the tragic case of the 23-year-old female physiotherapy student who was recently sexually assaulted and killed by six male suspects in India’s Capital City, New Delhi.

Protests in Bangalore

On 16 December 2012, a 23-year-old female physiotherapy student from New Delhi, India was riding home with her fiance after seeing The Life of Pi when she was sexually assaulted on a bus by six male suspects. The assailants beat her and her fiancée, leaving them for dead. Reports vary, but some suggest the police wasted valuable time arguing over jurisdictional responsibility before helping the young woman. Roughly a week after the assault occurred, the young woman was flown to Singapore to receive further medical care. Unfortunately, the assault was so brutal and her organs so damaged, she passed away in late December. The suspects now face murder charges and the streets of India are alive with fervent protests:

India is now known to have a growing economy. Though mass poverty still exists, a middle-class is slowly developing. Greater proportions of men and women are beginning to increase their education levels and find steady work. Despite these changes, India remains a country where women’s oppression is part and parcel of everyday life – so much so that among the G20 nations (essentially 20 of the richest countries in the world), India was ranked worst in terms of women’s livelihood.

Worse yet, India’s capital city, New Delhi, holds the shameful title of being the country’s so-called “rape capital.” Violence against women happens in all societies. But in New Delhi, cultural attitudes toward women and girls are especially traditional, more so than some other major Indian cities, including Bombay, Bangalore, and Chennai. And this is where we can take a basic sociological lens in examining this tragedy.

When a large proportion of residents in a society like New Delhi value women and girls in a particularly oppressive fashion, the chances for violence increase as women and girls gain power. As stated by Jewkes (2002), “having some education empowers women enough to challenge certain aspects of traditional sex roles, but…such empowerment carries an increased risk of violence until a high enough level is reached for protective effects to predominate” (p. 1425). Hence, in this transition period when women are acquiring skills, education, reproductive rights, money, and independence, some men who fear losing their traditional privilege in society will lash out violently as a way to reaffirm their gendered advantages.

Of course this observation does not mean social movements for women’s and girls’ rights should be reduced. Rather, it means the appropriate institutional systems need to be put in place to protect women and girls during periods of major social transformation. In New Delhi, activists are drawing attention to the fact that police and court systems are ineffective in assisting female victims of harassment and sexual assault, thereby adding to a broader culture that allows such behavior to occur in the first place. For instance, research estimates that “out of every 100 rape cases in India, only 10 are reported and out of every 100 reported cases, only 5 offenders are convicted” (p. 386). This means that out of about every 200 actual cases, only 1 leads to a conviction (other literature reports conviction rates of 26% among reported cases).

Women and men are working in New Delhi to alter patriarchal cultural norms. In this April 2012 video produced by Aljazeera English, activists are seen employing a number of programs, which seek to prevent violence against women:

Though a bit dated, research from 1999 in New Delhi specifically reveals that “police and physicians, the first agents women turn to for assistance, repeatedly mishandle rape cases by doubting a crime has been committed, delaying medicolegal authorizations, erring in documenting evidence, and conducting inappropriate medical examinations” (p. 488). Hence, although the violence prevention measures highlighted in the above video are excellent, if true change is to occur, multiple social institutions – police, courts, health care, education, families – must see radical social change.

Many argue that the solution is not to respond by intensifying a more punitive criminal justice system. Such measures “further empower an often repressive police force … state violence in response to rape simply creates a more violent society.” Instead, criminal justice systems need to be made more sensitive and effective in addressing violence against women in the first place. “[Fifty-one] percent of Indian men and 54 percent of Indian women [justify] wife beating”; strikingly similar attitudinal trends on domestic violence have been reported by adolescent males and females. Forty-five percent of Indian girls marry before age 18. Increased punitive changes in the criminal justice system will not alter the broader cultural attitudes that deprive women and girls. Violence against women can be prevented when women hold reproductive, educational, familial, and occupational rights, and men support such rights.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Explain why women may be at greatest risk to be victims of violence when more women begin securing higher education and occupational rights.
  2. Watch the third video in this post, which highlights a number of innovate programs aiming to prevent violence against women. Do these programs change the broader society that oppresses women and girls? Explain your answer.
  3. Why does enhancing the harshness of a punitive criminal justice system do little to prevent crimes against women?
  4. Were you aware of this recent tragedy in New Delhi and how it symbolizes the plight women face in that city? How might your answer reflect your global awareness?

Further recommended reading:

  1. Go, V. F., Johnson, S. C., Bentley, M. E., Sivaram, S., Srikrishnan, A. K., Celenttano, D. D., & Solomon, S. (2003). Crossing the threshold: engendered definitions of socially acceptable domestic violence in Chennai, India. Culture, Health & Sexuality: An International Journal for Research, Intervention and Care, 5 (5), 393-408.
  2. Magar, V. (2003). Empowerment approaches to gender-based violence: women’s courts in Delhi slums. Women’s Studies International Forum, 26 (6), 509-523.