People have called her Braveheart, Fearless and India’s Daughter, among other things, and sent up a billion prayers for a speedy recovery.
When the unidentified woman died in a Singapore hospital early on Saturday, the victim of a savage rape on a moving bus in the capital, Delhi, it was time again, many said, to ask: why does India treat its women so badly?
Female foetuses are aborted and baby girls killed after birth, leading to an an appallingly skewed sex ratio. Many of those who survive face discrimination, prejudice, violence and neglect all their lives, as single or married women.
Trust Law, a news service run by Thomson Reuters, has ranked India as the worst country in which to be a woman. This in the country where the leader of the ruling party, the speaker of the lower house of parliament, at least three chief ministers, and a number of sports and business icons are women. It is also a country where a generation of newly empowered young women are going out to work in larger numbers than ever before.
With more than 24,000 reported cases in 2011, rape registered a 9.2% rise over the previous year. More than half (54.7%) of the victims were aged between 18 and 30. Most disturbingly, according to police records, the offenders were known to their victims in more than 94% of the cases. Neighbours accounted for a third of the offenders, while parents and other relatives were also involved. Delhi accounted for over 17% of the total number of rape cases in the country.
And it is not rape alone. Police records from 2011 show kidnappings and abductions of women were up 19.4%, women being killed in disputes over dowry payments by 2.7%, torture by 5.4%, molestation by 5.8% and trafficking by an alarming 122% over the previous year.
The Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen has estimated that more than 100m women are “missing” worldwide – women who would have been around had they received similar healthcare, medicine and nutrition as men.
New research by economists Siwan Anderson and Debraj Ray estimates that in India, more than 2m women are missing in a given year.
The economists found that roughly 12% of the missing women disappear at birth, 25% die in childhood, 18% at the reproductive ages, and 45% at older ages.
They found that women died more from “injuries” in a given year than while giving birth – injuries, they say, “appear to be indicator of violence against women”.
Deaths from fire-related incidents, they say, is a major cause – each year more than 100,000 women are killed by fires in India. The researchers say many cases could be linked to demands over a dowry leading to women being set on fire. Research also found a large number of women died of heart diseases.
These findings point to life-long neglect of women in India. It also proves that a strong preference for sons over daughters – leading to sex selective abortions – is just part of the story.
Clearly, many Indian women face threats to life at every stage – violence, inadequate healthcare, inequality, neglect, bad diet, lack of attention to personal health and well-being.
Analysts say deep-rooted changes in social attitudes are needed to make India’s women more accepted and secure. There is deeply entrenched patriarchy and widespread misogyny in vast swathes of the country, especially in the north. And the state has been found wanting in its protection of women.
Angry citizens believe that politicians, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, are being disingenuous when they promise to toughen laws and speed up the prosecution of rapists and perpetrators of crime against women.
How else, they ask, can political parties in the last five years have fielded candidates for state elections that included 27 candidates who declared they had been charged with rape?
How, they say, can politicians be believed when there are six elected state legislators who have charges of rape against them?
But the renewed protests in Delhi after the woman’s death hold out some hope. Has her death come as an inflexion point in India’s history, which will force the government to enact tougher laws and people to begin seriously thinking about the neglect of women?
It’s early days yet, but one hopes these are the first stirrings of change.
(This article was first published in BBC)