What the Delhi Rape Trials Mean for India's Women

The country must prove that it can routinely and effectively prosecute rapists, even when it's not in the international spotlight.

Dozens of activists protested against a recent gang rape and murder of a 20-year-old college student at Barasat area on the outskirts of Kolkata. (Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters)

Today the Juvenile Justice Board in Delhi, India was supposed to deliver the verdict against the youngest of the six men accused of gang-raping a 23-year old physiotherapy student while she was riding on a bus on December 16, 2012. The accused was 17 at the time of the rape and turned 18 last month. Police reports indicate that the defendant was allegedly the most brutal of the men involved. However, according to the provisions of India's Juvenile Justice Act, the maximum sentence possible for a minor is three years in custody, including time already served. In a dramatic turn, India's Supreme Court is now considering changing the legal definition of a juvenile in response to this case. The verdict has been delayed until August 5 of this year.

This news sets the stage for the rest of the Delhi rape trials and suggests that the five remaining adult defendants will receive harsh sentences from the courts. The Indian government is keenly aware that this particular case is being scrutinized by the entire world. In fact, the Delhi High Court has allowed foreign media to cover the court proceedings. But while the judicial system is moving swiftly and heavy-handedly to mete out justice in this case, it is unclear what these verdicts will mean for the future of women's rights in India in cases that garner less international attention. Meaningful change in India would require a sustained commitment to reforming the dysfunctional criminal justice system that allows this type of sexual violence to occur in the first place.

Brutal rapes happen every day in Indian villages and cities. Looking back, it is unclear why this rape in particular sparked such unprecedented international media coverage. Perhaps it is because this victim did not look very different from women in any other modern metropolis. She came from a middle class family that had made sacrifices so that she could go to college. As a student in Delhi, she enjoyed doing things that Western audiences can relate to, like going to a mall with a friend to watch Life of Pi.

Perhaps it was the public nature of this crime that caught the world's attention: The rapists brazenly attacked the victim on a bus moving through their bustling city. Once the victim was on the bus, five men knocked her friend unconscious and then took her to the back to rape her. In doing so, the rapists transformed a bus -- a symbol of the city's infrastructure and modernity -- into a place of unimaginable savagery.

Perhaps it was simply the sheer barbarity of this act that made us pause in disbelief during the lull before the holiday season. On December 23, 2012, it was hard to ignore the news that the victim had died of her injuries. The doctors say that the rapists penetrated her so brutally, at times with an iron rod, that only 5 percent of her intestines remained inside her abdomen afterward.

While the world rightly watched in horror as the details of this case unfolded, the more disturbing reality is that this rape represents a much larger problem in India. In the months after her death, stories trickled in of dozens of other women and girls who have been raped under similar conditions. Reports of rape are going up in Delhi. Many of these other cases involve the rape of villagers and children: women and girls who have not elicited as much empathy or attention from the international community. More alarmingly, the crimes perpetrated against these women and children are not routinely brought to justice within the Indian courts.

The media frenzy surrounding this rape resulted in the mobilization of the entire Indian government, from the Delhi police to the prime minister. The prosecution of the rapists proceeded with unheard-of speed and efficiency. Meanwhile, the hundreds of other rape cases that come pouring in every year are mired in legal bureaucracy. Most cases take years to resolve, and victims' testimonies are often not deemed credible. Of the 600 rape cases reported in Delhi in 2012, only one led to a conviction. With figures like these, it's no wonder that rapists have not learned to fear reprisal or prosecution.

After the widespread protests that took place after the victim's death in December, the Indian Parliament responded by passing an anti-rape bill that amends India's penal code and laws of criminal procedure and evidence. The laws impose harsher punishments for rape, including, in some cases, the death penalty. It has also outlawed stalking, sexual harassment, acid attacks, and the forced disrobing of women.

While these new provisions reveal that the Indian government is finally taking violence against women seriously, the problem with women's rights in India has always come down to the enforcement of laws, rather than the laws themselves. Rape has been a criminal offense in India since 1860, but it has been very difficult for rape victims to seek justice. Legal experts assert that stereotyping based on characteristics such as whether the victim is a virgin or married have historically resulted in few convictions.

Ever since the alleged rapists were taken into custody, they too have become victims of India's faulty criminal justice system. Each defendant has complained of abuse from prison guards and other prisoners, a common occurrence for prisoners accused of sexual offenses in India. Most notably, Ram Singh, the oldest of the six and the purported ringleader, was found hanging in his cell. His family asserts that he could not have created the noose himself, since both of his hands were wounded in an earlier accident. His post-mortem report revealed that he was battered prior to his death and that his body was returned to his family without having been stitched up, a serious breach of protocol and human dignity, even for an accused rapist.

Paradoxically, the maltreatment of the six accused rapists while in government custody also has an impact on women and their safety. The fact that the defendants have faced vigilante justice at the hands of the police and other prisoners reveals an underlying lack of faith in Indian courts. It exposes a pervasive belief that rapists will not be brought to justice within the court system and must therefore be punished through unofficial means. Yet, women cannot rely on this rogue retribution in order to feel secure.

For Indian women to feel safe in their country, they need the assurance of reliable and effective institutions that will work to protect them. They need to feel comfortable reporting rape and must believe that their complaints will be recorded and addressed. While the verdicts in the Delhi rape trials are likely to be duly harsh in reaction to the public outcry, what matters is whether the Indian criminal justice and law enforcement systems routinely treat rape seriously, even when cases are not in the media spotlight. Until this happens, rapists will not be deterred and the Indian government will continue to send the message that the most vulnerable members of society can be brutalized with impunity.