Nearly five years ago, the horrifying gang rape of a 23-year-old woman on a bus in New Delhi, India, prompted thousands to protest India’s rape laws and handling of sexual assault cases.
It seemed like a turning point. The widespread outrage turned into fervent support for legal reform — and change finally seemed possible.
But a new Human Rights Watch report found that despite improved laws and policies, stubborn attitudes toward and denigrating views of rape victims still pose massive barriers to victims getting both support services and justice.
A recent Thomson Reuters Foundation poll named New Delhi and Sao Paolo, Brazil the worst cities in the world for violence against women, going as far as calling Delhi India’s “rape capital.”
Ultimately, the young victim of the brutal rape died. And in 2013, India amended its laws, imposing harsher punishments on rapists and reclassifying crimes offences like stalking and acid attacks as crimes.
Perhaps most importantly, the new laws no longer required a physical struggle between a victim and her attacker to qualify as rape, according to the BBC.
Since the laws were strengthened, there has been a 39% increase in rape complaints reported to the police, according to Human Rights Watch, which implies that the new laws have had some positive effect. However, the report found that despite an increased willingness to report sexual violence, there are still glaring gaps in the enforcement of these policies and cases are still frequently handled inappropriately, so survivors are not necessarily getting justice.
About one in four rape cases actually results in a conviction, the Washington Post reported.
The stubbornness of the problem can be attributed, in part, to the social stigma that is pervasive not only in Indian society at large, but also among medical professionals and members of law enforcement, Human Rights Watch said.
Global Citizen campaigns to amend laws and change attitudes that discriminate against women and girls. You can take action here to urge governments to strengthen their sexual violence and rape laws.
“Rape is still constructed as women’s shame and there are so many social barriers for women to talk about it,” a professor at the School of Gender Studies at Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences is quoted as saying in the report, which is aptly called “Everyone Blames Me.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 65 victims, doctors, activists, police officers, and government officials to produce the report, which details 21 rape cases and their handling.
The women — 10 of whom were not even 18-years-old when they were raped — share stories of being beaten and pressured by the police to change statements, and being subjected to invasive tests by doctors trying to determine whether or not they have been sexually active.
The rights organization found that law enforcement officials have often failed to take action in a timely manner after receiving sexual violence and assault complaints — and at times failed to take any action at all.
The bus driver in the 2012 incident attempted to appeal his death sentence for the crime by arguing that the victim was to blame.
"A decent girl won't roam around at nine o'clock at night. A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy," he said.
Human Rights Watch’s report found that in terms of society’s attitudes toward rape victims, not much has changed.
As part of her doctoral thesis, Madhumita Pandey interviewed 100 convicted rapists in India to understand why these men had sexually assaulted women.
“When you talk to them, you realize these are not extraordinary men, they are really ordinary. What they’ve done is because of upbringing and thought process,” she said.
Pandey found that many still did not understand that what they had done was wrong.
“There were only three or four who said we are repenting. Others had found a way to put their actions into some justification, neutralize, or blame action onto the victim,” she said.
What Pandey found seems to complement victims’ accounts of being blamed for their rape, which Human Rights Watch reported.
“I have lost everything and everyone blames me,” one victim told Human Rights Watch researchers. After she was gang-raped and filed a police complaint, her husband abandoned her and villagers drove the woman and her parents out of their village. “I didn’t even leave my home for a month after the incident. I was tired of listening to neighbors’ taunts,” she said.
The organization found that fear and shame are still major issues for rape victims in India. Women are afraid to report rape not only because they may not be believed, but because of the stigma that would be attached to them as a result, and the humiliation they would have to endure to try to bring their attackers to justice.
While India’s anti-rape laws after the shocking 2012 case were certainly a positive development, more than 34,000 rapes were reported in India in 2015, according to government data — and that is likely an underestimate as many victims still do not report attacks.
Until the implementation of these laws is strengthened, support services are made available, and barriers to victims’ access to justice and healthcare are reduced, according to Human Rights Watch, India will not see the change it hoped for.