Skip to main content

New Delhi rape exposes the perils of being a woman in India

By Harmeet Shah Singh and Mallika Kapur, CNN
January 3, 2013 -- Updated 1857 GMT (0257 HKT)
  • Police say a 23-year-old woman was gang-raped, beaten to near death on a bus in New Delhi
  • The attack sparked protests across India, where data show that rape cases have jumped
  • Students talk about their fears, abuse from men, precautions they must take
  • Elders say they faced similar attitudes, which only worsened as the city and the country grew

New Delhi (CNN) -- Bhavyaa Sharma feels vulnerable in the Indian capital.

The 19-year-old student at a leading women's college in New Delhi fears for her safety when she leaves the campus. Sexual assaults on women in the city have horrified her and her female friends.

Surviving rape: iReporters speak out

On Sunday, a 23-year-old woman was gang-raped and beaten to near death on a moving bus in New Delhi, police say. She is in intensive care at a city hospital, battling for her life.

The attack sparked furious protests across India, where official data show that rape cases have jumped almost 875% over the past 40 years -- from 2,487 in 1971 to 24,206 in 2011.

Read more: Can we end rape as tool of war?

New Delhi alone reported 572 rapes last year and more than 600 in 2012.

Outrage over suspected India gang rape
Gang-raped girl can't leave home

"I feel vulnerable here," said Sharma, accompanied by her classmates. "I am very sure about it. Delhi is not safe for women."

Opinion: Rapes show that Indian society needs a new attitude

Sharma is from Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh state. She joined Miranda House, a women's residential college in New Delhi, in 2010. She's now close to graduation.

But her stay in the Indian capital hasn't been without a bitter experience. She says she was groped while commuting in a bus in this city.

Read more: Indian girl seeks justice after gang rape

"It wasn't traumatic. But I cannot forget it, either. Definitely, I cannot forget it," Sharma said.

She called her parents back home that day, who tried to comfort her. Still, she couldn't hold back her tears. "I cried the entire night," she said.

Her hostel colleagues shared their own encounters with unwanted behaviors on the streets of New Delhi.

In her first year of college, a group of men stalked Shweta Prakash, 20, and her friends every night they would leave their apartment for dinner.

Read more: Rape is shredding Syria's social fabric

"It actually freaks you out when people do such things to you ... eye-teasing, passing lewd comments and stalking you. They literally rape you with their eyes," she said.

Now, she keeps pepper spray and has enrolled in self-defense taekwondo programs.

Prakash and her friends hold each others' hands while walking and text license plate numbers and their location to their parents and others when they travel in a cab or a slow-moving auto-rickshaw.

As young girls, elders, too, faced similar attitudes, which they say only worsened as the city and the country grew.

"I can speak about my own experience, as a student, in this city -- people are pinching you, touching you, someone is coming close to you. This is absolutely the mentality where you look at a woman as an object of sex and (which) you use and abuse," rights activist Ranjana Kumari said.

Read more: Rights group: Police rape woman in Tunisia, then charge her with indecency

As furor about Sunday's assault rose, some Indian lawmakers even called for treating rape as a capital crime.

The country's human rights body shot off notices to city police and federal authorities, demanding an explanation of the latest sexual assault.

"The incident has raised the issue of declining public confidence in the law and order machinery in the city, especially in its capacity to ensure safety of women, as a number of such incidents have been reported in the national capital in the recent past," the National Human Rights Commission said in a statement Tuesday.

Five people, including the bus driver and a minor, have been arrested in connection with Sunday's rape, New Delhi police spokesman Rajan Bhagat said.

Read more: Rape in wartime: Listening to the victims

Meantime, some observers say anti-women acts in India stem from the country's largely patriarchal social setup.

Indians' preference for sons over daughters, for example, has manifested itself in a worrisome population imbalance. The 2011 census of the world's second-most populous nation recorded an alarming drop in the percentage of girls among country's preschoolers.

For every 1,000 boys up to 6 years old, the census counted 914 girls, a drop from 927 a decade ago.

It's illegal in India to abort a child because of its sex, but such abortions happen, often aided by illegal clinics.

"The reasons for the high number of female feticide in India include a deep-rooted traditional son preference, continued practice of dowry and concern for safety of the girl child and exploitation and abuse of women and girl children," Krishna Tirath, India's women and child development minister, acknowledged in parliament in March 2011.

A senior legal expert says legislation alone cannot resolve anti-women biases.

"More law will only serve to give a sense of something being done, when in fact very little is being done. To confront the hatred that is now manifesting itself in the most egregious ways is to move forward as a society," Ratna Kapur, a professor at Jindal Global Law School, wrote in The Hindu newspaper Wednesday.

"We need to think about how we can handle women's equality in ways that are not perceived as threatening. That demands greater responsibility on the part of parents as well as society not to raise sons in a way in which they are indoctrinated with a sense of superiority and privilege. There is also a need on the part of young men to be actively involved in their schools and communities in advocating women's equality rights," she added in her opinion column, headlined "Rape and the crisis of Indian masculinity."

Part of complete coverage on
Violence against women in India
She was attacked at a rural police station, and her landmark case awakened India decades ago.
January 28, 2014 -- Updated 1026 GMT (1826 HKT)
An Indian army corporal suspected of sexually assaulting a 14-month-old girl has been taken into custody.
November 17, 2013 -- Updated 1314 GMT (2114 HKT)
Giving voice to the victims of violence has power. When a discussion builds around it, those voices gain strength.
December 16, 2013 -- Updated 0222 GMT (1022 HKT)
The colorful, busy streets of New Delhi are a mixture of old and new. Some people have modern attitudes, while others remain rooted in ancient values.
December 16, 2013 -- Updated 0223 GMT (1023 HKT)
When CNN's Sumnima Udas tells people outside India that she lives in New Delhi, she is almost always asked: "Do you feel safe there?" or worse, "what's with the rape culture in India?"
September 14, 2013 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
An Indian court sentenced four men to death for the rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman in New Delhi, an attack that appalled the South Asian nation.
September 4, 2014 -- Updated 0123 GMT (0923 HKT)
The New Delhi rape case left the whole world wondering why India is treating its women so badly.
September 10, 2013 -- Updated 1010 GMT (1810 HKT)
An Indian court finds four men guilty of the gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman on a bus in New Delhi in 2012.
August 28, 2013 -- Updated 0828 GMT (1628 HKT)
I wasn't raped, but my attackers sexually assaulted and then tried to kill me.
August 14, 2013 -- Updated 1121 GMT (1921 HKT)
They're called the Red Brigade, a group of teenagers who are facing sex pests head on, vigilante-style.
August 23, 2013 -- Updated 1549 GMT (2349 HKT)
A U.S. student's experience of sexual harassment in India triggers more anguish and sympathy from women in India.
August 23, 2013 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
American student Michaela Cross says during a three-month trip to India she experienced relentless sexual harassment, groping and worse.
August 15, 2013 -- Updated 1029 GMT (1829 HKT)
Months after the brutal rape of an Indian woman on a bus, have measures to address violence against women worked?
March 7, 2013 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
New Delhi is known as the crime capital of India. CNN's Sumnima Udas talks to women there about what daily life is like.
July 16, 2013 -- Updated 1106 GMT (1906 HKT)
There's one clear observation from the outcry to India's rape crisis: some of the voices belong to India's men.
January 16, 2013 -- Updated 1906 GMT (0306 HKT)
'Top Chef' Host Padma Lakshmi weighs in on the New Delhi gang rape case and shares her experience living in India.
January 3, 2013 -- Updated 1841 GMT (0241 HKT)
The director of Amnesty International, India, says that execution "would just perpetuate the cycle of violence."
January 16, 2013 -- Updated 2355 GMT (0755 HKT)
The Delhi police bore the brunt of criticism for a December gang rape, but now they say they're changing their ways.
January 4, 2013 -- Updated 1634 GMT (0034 HKT)
The fatal gang rape of a young woman sparked weeks of angry protests and heated debates about sexual violence in Indian society.
January 3, 2013 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
The New Delhi woman who was gang-raped died with her honor intact; her rapists will live in ignominy, actress Leeza Mangaldas writes.