Outrage in India


The public outcry after the gang rape and murder of a young woman on a public bus in India last month prompted a quick official response. Real change in the way women are treated there — and elsewhere — will take much longer.

It was a horrific crime. According to reports, a 23-year-old medical student and her male companion were lured onto the bus in Delhi on Dec. 16 and were kidnapped. She was raped for more than an hour as the bus traveled around the city.

Then they were beaten with metal bars and thrown from the bus. She died last week from massive internal injuries.

Her alleged abductors — five adults and a juvenile — have been arrested and charged with rape and murder. They could face the death penalty.

There is a new 24-hour hot line for women in the capital. India’s parliament is working on anti-rape laws. But these will be hollow gestures if the Indian government doesn’t follow through on these good intentions.

According to official figures, a woman is raped every 14 hours in Delhi. Across India, a rape is reported every 20 minutes. More than nine of 10 cases involve someone known to the victim, usually a family member or neighbor.

Most victims don’t go to police because of the social stigma attached to rape. When rapes are reported and charges are filed, few cases result in convictions. Guilty verdicts in capital crimes rarely result in execution.

Rape is just the tip of a larger iceberg of abuse, assault, harassment, neglect, and discrimination that Indian women face all their lives. Female fetuses often are aborted and female babies killed because male children enjoy higher status. Indian girls have fewer educational and economic opportunities.

The attitudes that produce such treatment are ingrained. Often they are shared by women as well as men, and are especially prevalent in rural areas.

As American women know, it takes more than protests and laws to change the way people think. Rather than years or decades, change takes generations.

The beginnings of change can be seen in the number of young, educated, and Internet-savvy Indians (men as well as women) who demonstrated against the mistreatment of women. Their protests galvanized public opinion. They should continue to make their voices heard.

But this isn’t just India’s problem, and the lack of global outrage over this brutal incident is disturbing. “Honor” killings, bride kidnapping, human trafficking, acid attacks, bride burning, female genital mutilation, spousal abuse, and female infanticide are accepted practices in various parts of the world. Rape, sexual harassment, discrimination, and other forms of abuse are common worldwide.

According to federal statistics, nearly one in five American women will be the victim of an attempted or completed rape during her lifetime. Only about 6 percent of rapists end up in jail.

Yet this week, the U.S. House failed to renew the 1994 Violence Against Women Act. Republican lawmakers wanted to roll back some protections and balked at extending others to lesbians, illegal immigrants, and Native American women.

It may be true, as the old advertising slogan insisted, that women have “come a long way.” But there’s still a long way to go, and women will continue to suffer until they get there.