Perhaps the real tragedy we must contemplate, as we consider the story of the young woman who now lies in a Delhi hospital bed battling for her life after being brutally beaten and gang-raped Sunday night, is this: in six months or less, she will have been forgotten. There will, by then, have been the next victim, and the one after — and absolutely nothing will have changed. Ever since Sunday’s savage crime, India’s political leadership has been loudly engaged in what it appears to believe is advocacy of women’s rights — in the main, dramatic but meaningless calls for summary trials, castration and mandatory death penalties. The same leaders will, if past record proves a guide, do absolutely nothing to actually address the problem. For all the noise that each gang-rape has provoked, Parliament has made no worthwhile progress towards desperately-needed legal reforms. Even nuts-and-bolts measures, like enhanced funding for forensic investigations, upgrading training of police to deal with sexual crimes, and making expert post-trauma support available to victims, are conspicuous by their absence.
How does one account for the strange contrast between our outrage about rape — and our remarkable unwillingness, as a society, to actually do anything about it? For one, we are far more widely complicit in crimes against women than we care to acknowledge. The hideous gang-rape in Delhi is part of the continuum of violence millions of Indian women face every single day; a continuum that stretches from sexual harassment in public spaces and the workplace to physical abuse that plays itself out in the privacy of our homes far more often than on the street. Nor is it true, secondly, that Delhi is India’s “rape capital.” There are plenty of other places in India with a higher incidence of reported rape, in population adjusted terms — and Delhi’s record on convicting perpetrators is far higher than the national average. Third, this is not a problem of policing alone. As Professor Ratna Kapur argues in an op-ed article in this newspaper today, there is something profoundly wrong in the values young men are taught in our society — values which bind the parental preference for a male child to the gang of feral youth who carried out Sunday’s outrage or the hundreds of thousands of husbands who were battering their wives that same night. Finally, India’s society rails against rape, in the main, not out of concern for victims but because of the despicable notion that a woman’s body is the repository of family honour. It is this honour our society seeks to protect, not individual women. It is time for us as a people to feel the searing shame our society has until now only imposed on its female victims.