By Nita Bhalla
So perhaps at last India has woken up to the daily abuse that its girls and women face.
Sunday night’s horrific rape where a 23-year-old woman was beaten and gang-raped on a bus as it drove through the streets of New Delhi has rightly outraged the entire nation.
In a country where news reports of sexual violence against girls and women are commonplace, yet provoke little public reaction, the events over the last three days have been unusual but welcome.
Political parties, university students and women’s rights groups have taken to the streets in cities across the nation to criticise the police and government for not doing enough to stem increasing reports of rape in the capital. Blockading roads and, in some cases, breaking through police barricades to have water cannons fired upon them, they have demanded better protection for girls and women on the streets.
Broadcasting minute-by-minute coverage in the aftermath of the incident, 24/7 news channels have kept the country updated. No detail has been spared - from the condition of the victim who is now fighting for her life in hospital, to the arrests of five men, including the bus driver, to a variety of panel discussions with politicians, social activists and women who have faced sexual harassment in Delhi’s public spaces.
But not only have national newspaper headlines been dominated by the case, the social media has been a flurry of activity. #DelhiGangRape has been trending on Twitter since Monday, while on Facebook, Indian men and women have been posting status updates condemning the brutal attack, praying for the health of the victim, and calling for severe punishment for the rapists. Even Bollywood stars and prominent personalities have spoken out.
In homes and offices, in television studios, on the blogosphere and in newspaper columns, girls and women have recounted the discomfort they face as they travel to and from work, the wolf whistles and lewd comments, the disgust they feel as men undress them with their stares and of course, the “accidental” gropes in buses or in crowded markets.
Even the upper echelons of political power have been stirred by the case. Both the lower and upper houses of India’s parliament on Tuesday held stormy sessions over the issue, with many members calling for the death sentence for rapists. The president of India's ruling Congress party, Sonia Gandhi, has also been to visit the hospital where the victim is in intensive care.
Having covered women rights issues in India for the last four years, it is heartening to see the amount of attention the local media are giving the issue of sexual violence, even though it has been sensationalistic at the best of times.
The media has (as with other cases such as the India Against Corruption movement) to a large extent, fuelled the public response and, as a result, pressurised authorities to take action, and a slew of measures ranging from increased policing to fast-track courts have been announced in the aftermath of the incident.
This is welcome, given the statistics. According to the latest figures from the National Crime Record Bureau, reported rape cases in the entire country have increased by 9.2 percent to 24,206 cases in 2011 from 22,172 the previous year.
New Delhi, with 16 million people, has the highest number of sex crimes among India's megacities which include Mumbai, Bangalore, Kolkata and Chennai. According to police figures, a woman is raped every 18 hours or molested every 14 hours in the capital.
But these figures are just the tip of the iceberg, with most women afraid to report rape cases, scared they will be stigmatised and bring “shame” on their families in this largely patriarchal country, where a woman’s sexual behaviour is linked to family honour.
Therefore, it is essential to maintain the momentum and continue to play an active role by speaking out against rape. By keeping up pressure for strong enforcement of laws, protection for women, and schemes to help dispel patriarchal attitudes which breed the notion of power and control over females, it is possible to bring change.
This is more so important for the media. The cynical journalist in me knows that by the end of the week, the media would have moved on to another story – results of recent state elections, a new political crisis or another government corruption scandal perhaps.
Even so, we should strive to follow the story and ensure that yesterday’s news does not become tomorrow’s ever again.