Indira Jaising, renowned women’s rights lawyer, a Wilson Center Global Fellow, and the first woman Additional Solicitor General of India, discussed the aftermath of the groundbreaking Nirbhaya gang rape case in New Delhi in December 2012, and the impact it has had on the South Asian region and the world.
On October 15, the Global Women’s Leadership Initiative at the Woodrow Wilson Center, with the Middle East Program and the Asia Program, held a meeting on “Addressing Violence Against Women in the Post-2015 Development Agenda.” Jaising talked about the new legislation in India that was borne out of the public outcry following Nirbhaya’s case, and the practical challenges in implementing violence against women (VAW) legislation in international jurisprudence. Rangita de Silva de Alwis, Director of the Global Women’s Leadership Initiative at the Wilson Center, provided opening remarks and moderated the event.
De Silva de Alwis began by highlighting the structural impact of VAW as a development goal, and the ways in which tackling VAW is necessary for women’s capabilities and leadership to be realized. She described the passage of the Domestic Violence Act in India, spearheaded by Jaising, as a landmark bill in South Asia.
Jaising began her discussion by giving a summary of and background information to the Nirbhaya case. On December 16, 2012 Nirbhaya was brutally beaten and gang raped on a private bus. She was subjected to horrific sexual violence, and her case gained prominence both domestically and internationally. There were daily protests all over India by women and men, from all walks of life, calling for justice. Jaising posed two over-arching questions; firstly, why did this particular case garner so much attention, and secondly, what is the meaning of justice for women?
In India, in the aftermath of the incident, the Justice JS Verma Committee was constituted to recommend amendments to existing Indian laws relating to crimes against women, provide quicker trials (instituting “fast-track courts”), and enhanced punishments for offenders. Jaising cautioned that amending legislation was only addressing half the issue, noting that there cannot be successful prosecution of sexual violence while institutional biases persist in law enforcement and the judiciary. Currently, women’s rights continue to be marginalized and victims of gender-based violence (GBV) are denied due process.
Jaising broadened the scope of the discussion to talk about the international impact of the case. While Nirbhaya’s case gained a lot of attention in the international media, Jaising criticized the Eurocentrism in many reports by Western news sources. She described the double standard applied by news outlets which made it seem “as if rape was a particularly Indian phenomenon, as if VAW had been transcended in the U.S.” Jaising contrasted this to the sympathetic tone towards the perpetrators of the Steubenville rape case, which was taking place in Ohio around the same time. She also highlighted how domestic violence cases are given low priority all over the world by using the case of Jessica Gonzalez in the U.S. This helped to put the public outcry that was sparked by Nirbhaya’s case into perspective, showing that VAW is a universal issue, and has systemic roots that pervade every society.
Citing best practices from around the world, Jaising described the importance of ensuring that legislation is diligently enforced. Newly drafted Indian laws address the structural imbalance of power between victims and perpetrators of GBV, which helps to address domestic violence and was also integrated into the Protection of Children from Sexual Offenses Act, passed in 2012. The restriction that limited sexual violence by armed forces to be tried by court-martial has been lifted, which allows such crimes to be prosecuted more easily in a civilian court. Rape in cases of communal violence is also recognized in the Indian penal code. Since March 2013, budgets have been specifically allocated to the prevention of GBV, and one stop crisis centers for women have been set up across India.
While there continue to be contested issues between recommendations from the women’s movement and what has been drafted into law, there has been a surge in activity in the judiciary, and increased awareness about VAW across all segments of Indian society. Jaising pointed to the importance of education, and working with communities, to help dismantle harmful cultural stereotypes and institutional biases that portray women as responsible for their own victimization. Prevention starts from education girls and boys in school about GBV and changing curricula in school. There has been debate about the ways in which women in the media are portrayed in India, and the influence of Bollywood films in propagating stereotypes. There has been a call to reject forms of culture that valorize VAW, such as banning a local rapper from performing misogynist lyrics.
To conclude, Jaising explained why Nirbhaya’s case resonated with the Indian population so strongly. The narrative was compelling as Nirbhaya was “everywoman” – she was from a migrant middle class family, and was pursuing her education to be a doctor. The extent to which she was brutalized was also shocking. This case also pointed to the unresolved problems of urbanization in India and a need to address the systemic nature of VAW in India and all over the world.
By Samaa Ahmed, Global Women’s Leadership Initiative
- Global Fellow