The details of the incident are so gruesome—and they’ve been so thoroughly covered in the media—that they don’t bear repeating. What’s important is that a woman in Delhi suffered a terrible act of sexual violence, and her struggle came to represent the entire plight of women in India. As she fought for her life in the hospital, protestors stormed the streets of Delhi, seething with a pent up anger that had long needed release.
Some were young women fed up with the growing prevalence of harassment and rape, and with the daily, inescapable fear that such violence inspires. Some were men concerned for their mothers, wives, and sisters. And some simply relished the chance to vent. Whatever their motivations, they braved one of the coldest winters in decades, warmed with the furious heat of unrest. As more demonstrations broke out across India, in cities such as Bangalore and Kolkata, conversations about women’s safety became unavoidable. Why did such a tragic event happen? And how could it be prevented in the future?
During those weeks, the country breathlessly followed the woman’s progress, praying for her survival and recovery. With her identity kept secret, she was given pseudonyms: Nirbhaya, meaning fearless one, to highlight her courage; Damini, meaning lightning, in reference to a famous Hindi film about justice and sexual assault; and Amanat, meaning treasure, to convey her endearment to the worried millions. At the end of 2012, she was one of the most famous people in India, and no one even knew her name.
She became a symbol for all Indian women, whose hardships often begin before they are born and continue until they die. For every 1000 men in this country, there are only 940 women, an imbalance due primarily to sex-selective abortion and infanticide. The discrepancy is even more extreme in certain areas. Delhi has a sex ratio of just 833 females to 1000 males. As girls grow older, the challenges don’t let up. In rural areas, girls perform the brunt of household chores and are often married in their teens, occasionally to men they’ve never met. Even in cities, arranged marriages are the norm. A woman usually gets married in her early twenties, and from then on, her husband controls her domestic and professional life.
And throughout it all, the threat of sexual violence persists. According to an oft-cited statistic, a rape is reported every 20 minutes in India. Additionally, many rapes go unreported, and millions of women undergo various forms of physical and verbal harassment. Even if a woman has not experienced these things, she probably knows someone who has, and she dreads going through it herself. To make things worse, authorities in India have a tendency to blame the victims in cases of sexual assault, criticizing the immodesty of their dress or the impropriety of their behavior.
Even as a foreigner, I recognize the advantages of my gender in this country. Many of things I do every day, and many of the adventures I write about on this blog, would not be possible if I were female. I take trains and buses on my own. I chat and drink chai with friendly strangers. I explore aimlessly at any time of day or night. For a woman, those activities would be risky. A bold female traveler might still do them, but at the very least, she would need extra caution and a few second thoughts.
The victim of the Delhi attack died on the morning of December 29. She had been flown to Singapore for the best possible treatment, but it wasn’t enough. The damage to her body was too severe. Although her name was eventually released with the consent of her father, it’s not worth mentioning. In the last days of her life, she became something larger than herself. A glaring reminder of all that is wrong, and an emblem of strength in spite of adversity. The Indian government has yet to take any sweeping action as a result of the incident, but true reforms will take time. They will require broad cultural shifts and an acceptance of women’s rights and freedoms. The victim lives on in the hearts of Indians, and so does the demand for change.