Earlier this month, the mutilated body of a mentally ill woman was found dumped in a field in the north Indian state of Haryana three days after she went missing. An autopsy revealed that the 28-year-old had been sexually assaulted multiple times, and that stones, sticks, and condoms had been inserted into her genitalia and anus. Some of her internal organs were missing.
"I have never seen such a horrific case in 30 years," Dr. S. K. Dhattarwal, who led the autopsy, told a national TV station.
Residents of the city of Rohtak have criticized police for their slow response to the initial missing persons report. Eight men have since been arrested, all of whom have confessed to the attack. A ninth suspect committed suicide shortly after the arrests.
Comparisons have been drawn between this brutal attack and the fatal gang rape of a 23-year-old woman on a New Delhi bus in 2012, a crime that sparked international outcry and set off widespread protests. The Rohtak rape-murder has not attracted as much global attention, but it is a pointed reminder of India's ongoing problem with violence against women.
A protest in Delhi seeking justice for girl who was gang raped and murdered in 2012. (Photo by Ramesh Lalwani)
Slow Pace of Reform
Indian newspapers report shocking new atrocities almost daily. In the last week alone, headlines referred to the alleged rape of a 4-year-old in Kolkata; the impregnation of a minor after she was repeatedly raped in Bihar; and the gang-raping of a 25-year-old woman by a friend and two others at a Valentine's Day party in Delhi.
Following the 2012 gang rape, the government introduced fast-track courts and strengthened laws against sex crimes. It instituted harsher punishments for repeat offenders, criminalized stalking, and identified human trafficking and acid attacks as specific offenses.
But two years on, activists say that these measures and deterrents haven't fostered the social change necessary to combat the menace of sexual assault.
"Law is never enough — it's an instrument. It has to be a totally multi-faceted, multi pronged strategy," Dr. Nandita Gandhi, co-director of Akshara, an organization fighting for women's rights, told VICE News. "As well as laws, you must have structural changes, and a better police force."
In a recent poll published by the Hindustan Times, 91 percent of the 2,557 women surveyed did not see any improvements in safety since 2012. The poll also found that 86 percent of the participants avoided going out alone after dark.
Safety is a particular concern for Yamini Menon, a senior designer at a major fashion house in Mumbai.
"There is no respect for women," the 29-year-old told VICE News. "Women and children are considered the weakest, so they become the easiest targets."
Menon travels around the city for work, sometimes at night. But even routine journeys pose a risk.
"It's very frustrating — since we have such an overpopulated country, most public transport is over-crowded," she said. "The scariest thing is getting in and out of stations as there are crowds pushing you in all directions. I am sure 80 percent of women who travel by public transport have been touched or nudged inappropriately."
Although police and government officials say steps have been taken to make the country safer for women, activists counter that understaffing and overwork among police are compromising enforcement, investigations, and convictions.
Safety Remains a Concern
Despite having campaigned in part on women's safety, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has rarely spoken about the issue since his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a landslide victory in last May's elections.
"Today when we hear about these rapes, our heads hang in shame," Modi remarked on India's Independence Day the subsequent August, one of the few occasions when he did address the problem.
The BJP's near silence as well as comments made by some of its officials give Indian women little hope for change.
Babulal Gaur, a minister responsible for law and order in the BJP-administered state of Madhya Pradesh, garnered headlines last June when he described rape as "a social crime which depends on men and women. Sometimes it's right, sometimes it's wrong."
Other politicians have been censured for blaming India's chronic rape problem on cellphones, Bollywood films, girls wearing jeans, and even the eating of Chinese food.
Experts emphasize that attitudes toward women in India's deeply patriarchal society lie at the root of the problem. This atmosphere contributes to the threats of sexual harassment (euphemistically known as "eve-teasing"), molestation, dowry deaths, and acid attacks faced by the country's women and girls.
The situation is such that when reformist Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal recently thanked and hugged his wife for her support after an unexpected municipal victory in Delhi, the extraordinary gesture was seen as a major political statement.
Yashoda Gayakwad. (Photo by Suranjana Tewari)
Cities with large migrant populations tend to be most vulnerable to crimes against women.
The tenement or "chawl" in which 26-year old Yashoda Gayakwad lives with her husband and three children has little privacy and no security. Located in the suburbs of Mumbai, the collection of cramped quarters is home to hundreds of laborers and domestic workers.
The residents of the chawl share common bathrooms, and Gayakwad has to walk a considerable distance at 2:30 AM every morning in order to collect water for the day. She is often accompanied by her younger sister, but still feels very unsafe given the number of men lurking around the chawl at that early hour. The men often harass the women.
Life can be difficult at work, too. Gayakwad's female neighbors have faced harassment and even molestation from their male employers.
The chawls are also known preying grounds for child traffickers, something Gayakwad fears when she leaves her children at home to go to work, but can't avoid.
"I have to go out and earn money and help my husband provide for our family," she told VICE News. "This is our life, we don't have options."
Taking Matters Into Their Own Hands
According to the National Crime Record Bureau, 309,546 crimes against women were reported to the police in 2013, a spike of more than 25 percent over 2012. Delhi registered 1,441 rapes — the most of any Indian city.
Police attribute the rise to more women coming forward, but campaigners say that the reported figures still reflect only a fraction of the total crimes.
Frustrated with police apathy and insensitivity, some victims have begun naming-and-shaming offenders using smartphones and social media.
A video of an alleged victim berating her attacker went viral earlier this month. The young woman began recording after a middle-aged man tried to grope her on a domestic flight. The man tries to cover his face with his hand throughout the video, as he mumbles apologies.
"You are asking for forgiveness. Why? Because I'm a girl, and you have the right to touch me anytime, anywhere you want to?" the woman rebuked the man in front of other passengers.
Authorities are also trying to use technology to make taxis safer for women after the alleged rape of a 27-year-old woman in December by an Uber cab driver in Delhi. The incident exposed the government's failure to regulate internet-based taxi services, and the American rideshare company came under fire for failing to perform thorough background checks on drivers.
Such services are now required to include panic buttons in their cabs and GPS monitoring with their apps. But campaigners for women's safety say that basic promises need to be fulfilled first, like lighting public spaces and providing reliable and safe public transport options.
After the 2012 Delhi gang rape, a $320 million fund was earmarked to support initiatives by the government and organizations towards protecting the dignity and ensuring the safety of women. But it is still not clear exactly what the funds will be used for, or if they will be used at all.
The government's unfulfilled promises are most disappointing for the young women trying to navigate life in a rapidly developing but troubled country. Many of them are already trapped between the opportunities that India offers and pressure from traditionally minded families.
College student Nandana Gupta comes from a conservative family where girls are typically married off at the age of 18. She is trying to change her fate by getting an education. The threat of violence poses a further challenge to achieving her goals.
"There is no point being stuck at home because of this menace," Gupta told VICE News. "If I get a degree, I will get a job and become financially independent. Then I will get rights as a girl."
Many people in India encounter difficulties concerning money, social hierarchies, inequality, and politics. For Gupta, the only barrier is her gender, but she says the answer is simple.
"I want to learn, get an education, and fight back against these men for a better life," Gupta said. "All families should stand behind their girls instead of keeping quiet."
Additional reporting contributed by Priti Khan.