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Anger, frustration over rapes in India: 'Mindset hasn't changed'

Story highlights

  • Advocate: In a capital city, a young girl cannot be protected
  • Demonstrations re-emerge after 5-year-old girl raped, protester slapped by police
  • Since December protests after gang-rape, women say nothing has changed
  • Stricter anti-rape laws were passed earlier this month

Four months after a vicious gang rape left a 23-year-old physiotherapy student dead and triggered a national outcry over the treatment of women, more protests ignited in New Delhi after another brutal rape -- this time the victim was a five-year-old girl.

Two men have been arrested in the case. Authorities say the girl was abducted, locked in a house and raped repeatedly. She was found semiconscious three days later and doctors removed foreign objects from her genitals, including candle pieces and a small bottle.

"In a capital city, we cannot provide protection to a young girl," said Bhagyashri Dengle, the executive director of Plan India, an organization that works to help underprivileged children.

The girl's family said that police officers had tried to bribe them to keep quiet about the case.

Senior police officials have ordered a separate investigation into those allegations.

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Clapping, chanting and holding signs that read "Enough is enough," protesters re-emerged in the nation's capital. They waved money at the police officers alleging corruption and ineptitude.

    Then, there was another slap in the face, advocates said, when a Delhi police officer was taped pushing and swatting a female protester on Friday, fueling even more outrage.

    "Things have not improved," Dengle said of the police. "There is no fear, no sensitization, no awareness if a policeman, held responsible for law and order, is behaving this way to women."

    A New Delhi police spokesman said that the offending officer has been suspended.

    After a student was raped by seven men in a bus in Delhi in a case that brought international attention to India in December, authorities created stricter laws and vowed to increase the number of women working in the city's police stations. But the latest rape case begs the question -- has anything really changed in India since December?

    "There is anger, frustration and introspection," said Poonam Muttreja, executive director of the Population Foundation of India, a group that works on women's health and rights. "Tragically, the people's mindset hasn't changed. Police behavior hasn't changed. Political behavior hasn't changed."

    But there are other issues at play, women say.

    The gender issues facing India are "deep rooted," Dengle said. "It's the status of women. It's the male mindset. It's not going to change overnight."

    On a given week, sexual violence appears daily in the national newspapers -- a 16-year-old allegedly raped by her father, a landlord convicted of raping a tenant, a rickshaw-puller caught raping his 10-year-old daughter, a 19-year-old boy raping a 12-year-old mentally disabled girl, a 25-year-old raping his cousin, and a man throwing acid on his wife's private parts.

    While these cases haven't triggered demonstrations, they indicate regularly reported attacks on women and children.

    Earlier this month, India's president signed a law bringing stiffer anti-rape laws, introducing the death penalty for repeat offenders, and imprisonment for acid attacks, human trafficking and stalking. It also punishes public servants, such as a police officer, who "knowingly disobeys" the laws required in an investigation.

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    "Our government has moved with speed in strengthening the law to be able to deal more effectively with offences against women," said Manmohan Singh, India's prime minister on Sunday. "But, this is only a small part of what needs to be done.

    "The gruesome assault on a little girl a few days back reminds us once again of the need to work collectively to root out this sort of depravity from our society."

    Children are even more vulnerable, said Dengle. Many girls don't feel safe using public toilets, walking to and from school where they're teased by males, she said. They can't trust rickshaw drivers who take them to school.

    The Asian Centre for Human Rights reported that child rape cases jumped from 2,113 cases in 2001 to 7,112 in 2011 in India.

    Some families restrict women and girls' mobility because of the risks, said Aparajita Gogoi, the National Coordinator for the White Ribbon Alliance, which is a grassroots campaign for women's health, at a U.N. Foundation panel for journalists that took place earlier this month.

    The practice is long-standing, Dengle said.

    "Parents feel scared that girl can be abused on the way [to school]," she said. "The best thing [they think] is to keep her at home and this was happening even before all these rape cases. Girls didn't feel really safe."

    In a late, sunny afternoon in Delhi, the dusty streets are crowded with mostly men. The women appearing in public are in groups or accompanied by other men.

    A survey supported by UN Women found 95% of females in New Delhi said they felt unsafe in public places. Comprised of 2,001 females and 1,003 males, the survey was conducted before the December 16 rape case of the physiotherapy student.

    Three out of four men in the survey agreed with the statement, saying "Women provoke men by the way they dress" and two men out of five fully or partially agreed that "Women moving around at night deserve to be sexually harassed." Fifty-one percent of men reported that they had sexually harassed or committed violence against females in public spaces in Delhi, according to the survey from the Safer Cities Free of Violence against Women and Girls Initiative.

    For any substantial change, Indians have to address the way girls and women are treated overall, advocates say.

    Women are in danger even before they're born, said Ruchira Gupta, the founder of ApneAap, a women's organization.

    Sex-selective abortions, which are illegal in India, continue as the sex ratio, shown in the 2011 census, dwindled to 940 females to 1,000 males.

    Having a girl means the family would have to pay dowries, which are also illegal in India.

    "Should girls survive, often they get less food than their brothers, they're pulled out of school early to help at home or get married," Gupta said. "They may have babies before their bodies are fully formed and and consequently die of maternal mortality or become victims of dowry or sex-trafficking. All this may not happen to one single girl but at least one or more of these things could happen to an average girl in India."

    Half of girls are married before the age of 18, U.N. reports find. India accounts for 19% of the global maternal deaths, according to U.N. report from 1990-2010.

    Gogoi, a health advocate, laid a scathing critique during a panel discussion with journalists: "Our culture doesn't place much value on women's lives."

    The other problem is that women are seen as objects of desire, said Dengle.

    "We have to break gender stereotypes," she said, supporting new classes to teach gender equality. "All this education needs to happen at the school level. They need to be sensitized and educated on respecting women. Our education system lacks that."