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As India gang-rape trial draws to close, debate begins over what has changed

Source: Reuters - Mon, 9 Sep 2013 04:31 AM
Author: Reuters
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Demonstrators shout slogans outside a juvenile court in New Delhi August 31, 2013. The demonstrators were demanding capital punishment for the teenager. The text on the headband reads, "16 December revolution". REUTERS/Stringer
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(Repeating Sunday item, no change to text)

By Nita Bhalla

NEW DELHI, Sept 8 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The serial rapist stalks her for days. Eventually he breaks into her home when she is alone and tries to rape her at knife-point. But she somehow manages to overpower and trap him.

Now, she has to decide what to do. Kill him and bury him in the garden? Or call the police, who are known to be insensitive and where there is a likelihood he will be let off?

The plot is from "Kill the Rapist?" - a new Bollywood thriller which aims to embolden Indian women to report rapes, but also deter potential rapists by making them "shiver with fear before even thinking of rape", says its Facebook page.

It may be a controversial, but it is all part of a growing conversation in India about violence against women following the fatal gang-rape of a 23-year-old trainee physiotherapist in December which prompted tens of thousands of urban Indians to take to the streets to protest.

Nine months on, the protesters have disappeared, but the case has left a more lasting impact on Indian society. The judge in the trial of the four men charged with raping and killing the woman is due to deliver his verdict in a Delhi court on Tuesday.

A teenager tried separately in the same case was sentenced to three years in juvenile detention last month.

"The December incident shook me to the core," says Siddhartha Jain, the 39-year-old producer of "Kill the Rapist?"

"I didn't want this just to be another story that would be forgotten in a year. My film is an excuse to amplify the discussion of women's security and hopefully bring about some positive changes."

The increased awareness is not just reflected in cinema. Newspapers and television news stations have stepped up their coverage of gender crimes, social media sites are full of debate and even Bollywood stars and cricketers are joining the discussion in campaigns to promote women's safety.

Social commentators say the issue - once only really debated by civil society activists, feminists and academics - is gaining ground and is being widely discussed by the urban middle classes.

"I think the conversation has changed, there appears to be much more sensitivity towards gender issues now from many quarters," says Santosh Desai, a columnist and author of "Mother Pious Lady: Making sense of Everyday India".

"Before it was always a discussion between one small group of people with another small group of people. Now, for the first time, it is coming into the mainstream and the conversation isn't just dying down after a few days. It is being sustained."

"SOCIAL TRIGGER"

This has not translated into women feeling any safer in India, say activists, but it has helped in breaking the silence surrounding crimes against women in a deeply patriarchal country.

Police in New Delhi, for example, believe a rise in rape reports is partly due to an increased willingness by victims to come forward. There were 1,036 cases of rape reported in the capital this year to Aug. 15, against 433 cases over the same period last year, according to police data.

Much of the growing awareness can be attributed to the media, which has voraciously covered the December assault and other such crimes in the last nine months.

"The media played the role of a social trigger on this whole issue. This case created an overflow of emotions and became the tipping point for Indian society when it came to the subject of violence against women," said Prabhakar Kumar, of the Delhi-based Centre for Media Studies.

Last month, Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan held true to a pledge following the Delhi gang-rape, placing his leading lady's name before his in the opening credits of his blockbuster film "Chennai Express" - a statement aimed at promoting the idea of respect for women in a male-dominated film industry.

Social commentators emphasise that while the heightened consciousness around women abuse has not really touched the conservative rural masses that make up 70 percent of India's 1.2 billion people, it has had an impact in urban areas.

"Since it happened, there have been continual protests over rape cases in Delhi as well as other parts of the country and people have come out in greater numbers than ever before," says Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women's Association. "This shows that there is a more sustained interest in this subject and people want action on such issues."

From New Delhi to Mumbai, Kolkata and Manipal, India has witnessed a wave of sporadic protests erupting over rape cases, forcing authorities to take action. (Additional reporting by Shyamantha Asokan in NEW DELHI and D. Jose in THIRUVANANTHAPURAM; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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