The brutal gang rape of a young woman in New Delhi this month has cast a cold light on how badly India treats its women.
On Dec. 16, the 23-year-old medical student was viciously assaulted by a group of men while she was riding a bus with a male companion. The two had just seen a movie. Both she and the man were beaten with an iron rod and eventually stripped, robbed and dumped on the roadside. After three surgeries at an Indian hospital, the woman was flown to Singapore on Thursday for further treatment. She died early Saturday after suffering what hospital officials said were "signs of severe organ failure."
This reprehensible crime reflects an alarming trend in India, which basks in its success as a growing business and technological mecca but tolerates shocking abuse of women. Rape cases have increased at an alarming rate, roughly 25 per cent in six years. New Delhi recorded 572 rapes in 2011; that total is up 17 per cent this year.
And those are just the reported cases. Many victims, shamed into silence and callously disregarded by a male-dominated power structure, never go to the authorities to seek justice. Women are routinely blamed for inciting the violence against them. On Wednesday, an 18-year-old girl from Punjab who had been gang-raped in an earlier incident killed herself after police and village elders pressured her to drop the case and marry one of her attackers.
India's news media now regularly carry horrific accounts of gang rapes, and this has begun to focus national attention on the problem. But the rape of the 23-year-old woman seemed to take the outrage to a new level, prompting tens of thousands to protest in New Delhi and elsewhere across the country. Still, political leaders were slow to react. It was days before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appeared on television to plead for calm and to promise to make India safer for women.
Since the attack, six suspects have been arrested and the government has announced the formation of two commissions, one to identify police "lapses" and another to recommend ways to speed up sexual assault trials. Reforms are needed in the law enforcement system to make convictions more possible and punishments more convincing. And Indian leaders like Sonia Gandhi, head of the ruling Congress Party, must speak out more forcefully about bringing rapists to justice.
More broadly, India must work on changing a culture in which women are routinely devalued. Many are betrothed against their will as child brides, and many suffer cruelly, including acid attacks and burning, at the hands of husbands and family members.
India, a rising economic power and the world's largest democracy, can never reach its full potential if half its population lives in fear of unspeakable violence.
© 2012, The New York Times News Service