This month in Delhi, India witnessed a shocking gang rape-murder incident ten years ago. It was an event that refocused India’s attention on a topic previously overlooked: violence against women.
Some readers might find this report disturbing, such as sexual violence.
The world was shocked when Jyoti, a 23-year old girl, was gang-raped and beaten by her Delhi bus driver, along with five other accomplices. Jyoti was given the name “Nirbhaya”, or “fearless” by media. She had resisted. She suffered from internal injuries, and she was then thrown out of the bus naked. Within two weeks, she died.
Soon, anger grew out of the nation’s shock. Young men and women marched in Delhi demanding justice. They braved the cold, and fought the tear gas and water cannons used by police officers to expel their anger.
Fear was my first reaction to that attack. As I read horrendous reports about her torture, I felt dread creeping up my body. A rod was inserted in her stomach and her intestines were pulled out. Having been subject to constant street harassment, I thought that I was pretty strong. But this terrorized me.
Protests in 2012 did result in some change. Laws were changed to recognize wider definitions of violence against women and set sanctions for police failures. They also created harsher penalties for those who perpetrated the crime, including the death penalty.
But, a decade on, the dangers facing women in India are still very real. In the last ten years, India’s crime rate has risen by more than 50%.
Jyoti Sing – Asha Devi was one woman who became involved in the fight for justice against rape.
In memory of her daughter, she created the Nirbhaya Jyoti Trust. Indian law allows victims of rape to remain anonymous, however Asha chose to publish her daughter’s name in 2015. She believes that those who perpetrate heinous acts should not be shamed, but the victims’ families.
Asha not only campaigned to get justice for her daughter but also provided a valuable emotional and practical resource to others who have suffered misogynistic violence in their lives. Many people sought Asha’s help over the years.
She told me in her tiny flat in Delhi that sometimes all they have is hope to continue. Sometimes the complicated judicial process can feel overwhelming. I help them navigate legal aid by sharing what I know.
Only a few of those whose lives are intertwined with mine have I spoken to.
One of them is Seema Kuswaha who was a student in Delhi at the time Jyoti died. She joined the protests alongside her friends following the attack. She stayed in Delhi, unlike half her flatmates who were persuaded by their families to go back to their homes.
While she was still studying law, she began attending the Jyoti case court hearings. She felt that she had to support Jyoti and her family as they sought justice. Seema joined the legal team which secured, in 2020 the execution of the death penalty verdict against the attackers.
After the Supreme Court confirmed that both men were to be hanged at last minute, Seema ran right to Asha’s home and kneeled before Jyoti, telling her she had kept her word. She then broke down in grief and relief.
She says, “The entire country was looking at it and it was crucial that the rapists were executed.”
In part, the decision to place the death penalty in heinous cases rape or gang rape in 2013 was a populist move by the government. Protests had grown throughout the country due to the belief that most rape is committed by unemployed, illiterate and poor strangers.
The six men accused of Nirbhaya’s gang rape, murder and homicide fit this profile. However statistics prove that people who are not familiar with the case don’t present the greatest threat.
According to Indian crime statistics, more than 95% of all cases of rape involve attackers who are family members, close friends and coworkers.
Pankaj, not his real name, was one of the victims in such an attack. His 13-year old sister was murdered and raped on their farm.
Pankaj was the one who discovered her body. Pankaj found her body after she cut the young girl’s bloody tunic. She had also been repeatedly knifed and had had a bamboo stick pierced into her neck.
Pankaj attacked Pankaj’s sister the summer after Jyoti had been raped. It was equally brutal. Pankaj felt that it was vital I saw the full extent of violence so he gave me photos taken right after the attack. These pictures will be etched in my memory forever.
The incident occurred in an isolated village, in eastern India’s most poorest state, not far from the capital. It was reported only in local newspapers.
Pankaj said to me, as he sat with me in his tiny mudhouse, “Her story never got out. There was no outrage. No calls for justice.” “All that I felt was fear for the men who might be so cruel.”
Fear was followed by shock. Contrary to Jyoti who was attacked and killed by strangers. All four of those arrested in the case against his sister were well-known to him, which includes a neighbor and a teacher who taught her after school.
Pankaj said that he believed the police had misunderstood the situation when they arrested the teacher. A guru has a sacred relationship with his disciple.
“I believed it only when he confessed to the crime, and helped me recover the knife that was used in the attack,”
In 2016, the men were found guilty and sentenced to death by a lower court. The men were convicted and sentenced to death by a lower court in 2016. The teacher was also later discredited by all four.
In many cases of rape, the police officers have not properly collected evidence or recorded testimonies. This has led to the acquittal of the victims’ families.
Pankaj was an example of this.
He said that they had come to my village and threatened me by murdering them for their misery.
He didn’t give up. He was armed with only a newspaper clipping and he set out to Delhi to seek justice for his sister. He had kept a newspaper article about Asha Devi.
Pankaj was able to meet Asha and open a new door. Jyoti was defended by a senior lawyer, who is appealing the High Court’s acquittal against his sister’s murderers.
“I am certain that I will be sentenced again to death.” Pankaj states, “I have faith in justice system.”
Although the Indian justice system is slow and overloaded, it works well for cases of rape. The violence in homes is much more prominent, but it is still a large problem.
Domestic violence, which is four times as common in India than rape, is India’s most serious crime against women.
Sneha Jawale (45 years old) has found the silence surrounding this deafening.
Her name is on the BBC 100 Women List, which has been naming 100 influential and inspiring women around the globe every year for 10 years.
Sneha said that her husband beat her often to get more dowry. But, the worst happened on December 24, 2000.
She recounts, “One night in a fit rage, [he] threw Kerosene and lit a matchstick, and burnt my face, chest, and arms.” In front of her young son, she was set on fire.
Sneha, who was still in hospital recovering from her injuries, told her family about her husband’s attack on her. They didn’t report him, but he was powerful and a “bigshot” so they did not. She claims that they instead told Sneha’s family about her death.
Even for me as a journalist, this was shocking. I had previously heard stories about women who were victims of domestic violence. What could possibly make parents abandon their children when they are most vulnerable?
Behind the walls of her home, Sneha was able to hide all the violence she suffered. Twelve years later, Nirbhaya’s attack changed everything.
Sneha was asked to participate in the 2013 play named after Nirbhaya, which was based on true testimonies from survivors and sought to end silence about violence against women.
Sneha, who wasn’t a professional actor for the four-year period of her life, shared her story with the public around the globe.
The play has taught me many lessons. “It changed me,” Sneha explains.
Many people would share their stories after our performance. This helped me to overcome my trauma. I no longer felt alone.”
I was struck by the loneliness that comes with trying to overcome trauma and seeking out help.
Barkha Bajaj created a crisis number for women who are in emotional distress. Barkha Bajaj, a psychologist and mental healthcare practitioner who is also a trained psychologist, had worked with victims of sexual abuse in the US before the Nirbhaya incident changed her life.
She was traveling alone in a train through north-east India in late 2012. There were no women in the compartment. Fear set in when she began to think about Jyoti and the details of her attack. Red chilli powder was handy and she slept with her shoes still on. She realized that there wasn’t a helpline that she could dial if she was in distress.
She said that “that realization channelled all of my fear into something useful,” and we chatted from Pune. Nothing could stop me.
The helpline was established in the wake of a stranger rape. However, she spends most of her time responding to calls from domestic violence victims.
Barkha states that women need a better infrastructure in order to help them when leaving abusive relationships. She also needs affordable legal representation when taking on court cases.
This sense of larger, more systemic fights that need to be fought is why Seema is now turning to politics.
Seema was a member of the Bahujan Samaj Party earlier this year. This party fights for Dalits’ rights, an oppressed Hindu caste.
Seema, a Dalit, is herself a champion for justice and gender equality. As a politician, she hopes to be more successful in the implementation of both gender and caste equality.
She says that sexual violence is only one problem. But inequality in society affects our families, marriage structures and politics. It all must change.
Asha Devi, Nirbhaya’s mother agrees with Nirbhaya that it is very difficult for women to experience a shift in safety.
She says, “We believed we’d change the world for girls like us. But we couldn’t.”
Her view of police officers and government-appointed attorneys is not high. The judicial system can be complex and difficult to find information. She has learned a lot from navigating her way through this process.
She says, “I’m not an educated person but I am a fighter. I promised justice to my daughter.”
It is distressing to hear about others’ suffering, but I find it gives me some peace knowing that they are fighting for justice.