Danielle Rajendram is a Lowy Institute research associate. Her work focuses on Indian foreign and domestic policy, India-China relations and Asian security.
The trial related to the brutal gang-rape of a 23-year old woman in New Delhi has come to an end, with all four of the accused convicted of all crimes and sentenced to death. However, whether harsher penalties will deter sexual violence is yet to be seen, and the conclusion of this trial is only the start of the larger battle for gender equality in India.
This case is the first real test of India’s new anti-rape laws and fast-tracked court processes, implemented in March this year. Major changes to India’s criminal code included criminalising voyeurism, stalking and lower-level sexual harassment, expanding the definition of rape, raising the age of consent from 16 to 18 and permitting the death sentence for repeat offenders or sexual assault that leaves the victim dead or in a persistent vegetative state.
The brutality of this assault resulted in widespread public outrage in India and impassioned protests across the nation’s capital. The profile of the victim caused this case to resonate strongly with India’s growing and influential urban middle class, shifting gender relations and sexual violence against women to the centre of the political debate.
As such, it is unsurprising that support for the death penalty in this case has been essentially uncontested. Before the verdict, Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde said the death penalty was assured, and other senior leaders from across the political spectrum also advocated for the death penalty.
Moreover, it is clear from the public discourse that this case has taken on a symbolic significance that goes beyond those directly involved. The father of the victim has demanded the death sentence in order to bring peace of mind to the whole country, prosecution lawyers have argued that 'the common man will lose faith in the judiciary if the harshest punishment is not given', and former police officer turned activist Kiran Bedi has argued that the 'brutality of the crime committed on the brave heart is perceived to be a crime against civilised society'.
Despite this overwhelming public support for harsher penalties, it’s unclear whether the death penalty will be effective in deterring future incidents of sexual violence. As I've noted before, India’s rape crisis points to deeper systemic problems in gender relations.
The new legislation has been criticised for being reactive and half-hearted, and was described by the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women as a lost opportunity to establish a substantive non-discrimination framework which addresses the marginalisation of women. The bill’s omission of marital rape and failure to criminalise sexual assault against men and transgender people is particularly problematic, and is reflective of the broader debate around gender that India must now have.
Basic failures of governance persist, and although the reporting of rape has risen since the 16 December incident, victims are still faced with often corrupt and apathetic police. Women have reported being treated with outright hostility by police, and in some cases have been pressured into reconciliation with their attackers through marriage. One of the most egregious and publicised examples of police negligence occurred in April, when the father of a five-year-old girl who was abducted and raped was offered 2000 rupees to keep quiet when he attempted to report the crime. Harsher penalties can’t be effective until the police force is reformed, and the government has been slow to deliver on its promises of increasing the proportion of female police officers.
It is clear that India has a long way to go on delivering on gender equality and women’s safety. While the very existence of this conversation represents a step towards acknowledging the massive inequalities India must address, having the public debate centre upon the perpetrators runs the risk of marginalising the critical dialogue India must have about the systemic factors which have allowed sexual violence to go on unfettered.
Legislative amendments create a useful platform to combat the tacit normalisation of sexual violence and gender-based discrimination, but the imperative for reform mustn’t stop here. Effective implementation will require significant overhauls in governance, and must be complemented with nation-wide educational programs and awareness campaigning.