As disturbing as the details of the gang rape case that took place in New Delhi, India, last month are, the protests it has sparked are equally encouraging. For the first time in India, rape and sexual harassment are being treated as the concern of society at large, not just of women. From being a marginal concern of a passionate but small feminist community, the safety and dignity of women in public spaces is being discussed as a national imperative. The protests have sparked discussions around the world but much of the analysis focuses on India as an emerging economy rather than paying attention to the social and political transformations rapidly remaking the country.
In the midst of grief over the 23-year-old’s death and the outrage at the brutality she and her friend endured at the hands of six men, the protesters have made a number of demands. These range from sensible proposals to actually train policemen and judges in gender sensitivity to more outlandish demands for chemical castration and mandatory death sentences in rape cases. What will come of these demands?
Many are hoping for a thorough reform of India’s judicial system, police procedures, social norms, and laws relating to violence against women. These hopes suggest that government intervention and the creation of new institutions is necessary to protect women. The truth is that India’s laws and stated policies are actually adequate to safeguarding the rights of its citizens. The gap lies in their implementation.
Police often dismiss rape victims and wind up traumatizing them, and judges focus on the character of the rape survivor rather than the actions of the accused. The cases take years, even decades to conclude, and the standards for evidence are too high for a slipshod police force to meet them sufficiently to garner more than a 25% conviction rate in an already under-reported set of crimes.
These problems are best remedied by directing additional resources to the judiciary and training of police officers. The government has promised to increase the number of female police officers which should also help. However, beyond the numbers and resources, what is needed is political will and sustained social pressure to treat rape as the crime that it is.
Rape has long been recognized by feminists as an act of domination rather than a sexual act. This understanding of rape is only now becoming part of the public discourse in India. If this framing of rape as a crime of power and not sex can truly take hold, that will be the most important legacy of these protests. Looking at rape as a problem of men who seek power over women will shift the way the public, the policy, and the judiciary treat rape survivors and perpetrators.
The fact that the protests in India have included as many men as women is a very positive sign. The involvement of opposition political parties is also good news. After all, in a democracy the best way to have your concerns addressed is by having a political party champion them in hopes of garnering your vote. If parties in India begin to court women voters as women, a great deal of change is likely on the horizon. It will be durable change, and not the elite-led reforms that are never implemented.
So, if the protests do not lead to any legal changes in the short run, we should not consider them to have failed. The Indian political system is bogged down and slow-to-move for a number of reasons, so we should not expect much action from the government. The social norms that are being created right now as a result of this national and international dialogue will be the true legacy of the victim and her supporters. The protests are two steps forward for women, and the action or inaction of the government in the coming weeks and months will matter very little in the long run.
Nandini Deo is a professor of political science at Lehigh University, and the co- author of ‘The Politics of Collective Advocacy in India (2011).