Rosita Boland’s reports from India describe a country where children are kidnapped routinely, 27 women are killed every day, and 40 per cent of women have been beaten by their husbands, and rape is shockingly common. #WomenInIndia
By Rosita Boland (The Irish Times) – Less than half an hour before my interview with Asha Singh, I have no idea what questions to put to her. What do you ask someone who has gone through what she has, without seeming crass, insensitive, or worst of all, exploitative?
On December 16th 2012, Asha and Badri Singh’s lives changed forever. It was a Sunday night and their 23-year-old daughter Jyoti, a physiotherapy student, was going to seeThe Life of Pi in a Delhi cinema with a male friend. She would not be long, she told her mother.
After the movie, Jyoti and her friend flagged one of the many buses that ply Delhi in search of fares. The world now knows what happened next on that bus.
Apart from the driver and Jyoti’s friend, there were five male passengers. Jyoti was beaten and gang-raped by all five men, plus the driver, who swapped with the others to take his turn. Her friend tried to assist her, but – one man against six – he too was beaten.
Jyoti was then tortured further. She was assaulted internally with an iron rod, so savagely that she would lose virtually all of her intestines afterwards.
After almost 90 minutes of unimaginable suffering, she was thrown naked out onto the street, along with her friend.
Thirteen days later, in a Singapore hospital, Jyoti Singh died of her grievous injuries, her parents by the side of their eldest child and only daughter.
By then, she had become known as “India’s daughter”. Her assault and death provoked unprecedented protests across India, against the violence routinely perpetrated against the country’s women. There was widespread revulsion in the world’s media.
But it takes more than an international media scandal to change India.
‘We were a normal, small family’
Asha and Badri Singh now live in a different part of Delhi, in a modest apartment given to them by the state after their daughter’s death. The room I am shown into has a vast glass cabinet crammed with trophies, plaques and certificates.
Most cabinets in living rooms around the world are filled with trophies and artefacts that celebrate the achievements of family members. This one – an object of heartbreak – instead holds tributes to the courage of the Singhs’ late daughter, often called Nirbhaya, meaning fearless. They have been given by television stations, newspapers, charities and academic institutions.
The Singhs keep receiving these items and don’t know what to do with them. For now, they keep them in this specially-built cabinet: deeply painful reminders not of what their daughter achieved in her life, but of how she died.
“She was not one of those kids who went out a lot,” says Asha. “She was so focused on her studies, she did not even see her old schoolfriends very often. We were a normal, small family. We had been living in Delhi for 30 years, and we had heard about rapes and murder but never such a heinous crime as this.”
The first the Singhs knew of what had happened was via a phone call from the police. Jyoti’s parents had been calling their daughter constantly through the evening, but there was no reply: her bag with her phone and wallet were the first things taken from her on the bus.
After the call from the police, they left immediately for the hospital. Jyoti was later moved to Mount Elizabeth Hospital in Singapore and her parents stayed beside her all the time. She died of horrific injuries, including multiple organ failure, on December 29th.
“You could not call the people who did this human. They are worse than beasts,” Asha says. The perpetrators were caught and tried in a fast-track trial.
One died in custody. Four were sentenced to death by hanging, a sentence that has not yet been carried out.
The sixth male was a juvenile at the time and was sent to a reform institution. He is due to be released on December 21st.
This upsets Asha greatly, as does the fact that none of the other four has had their sentences carried out. “The juvenile will be released on December 21st, and he will be treated like a hero here to all the other kids. They will see that you can commit this heinous crime before you are 18 and you can go unpunished.”
A BBC documentary on the crime, called India’s Daughter, was released this year. Despite restrictions on the screening of the film in India, Asha has seen parts of it, but could not watch all of it. “I am not amazed at all by anything in it about Jyoti. Jyoti had told me every single terrible bit of what happened to her.”
What did amaze Asha were the comments made by the defence lawyers. One of the defence team, AP Singh, told the documentary maker, Leslee Udwin: “If my daughter or sister engaged in pre-marital activities and disgraced herself and allowed herself to lose face and character by doing such things, I would most certainly take this sort of daughter or sister to my farmhouse and, in front of my entire family, I would put petrol on her and set her alight.”
Asha says: “What I am amazed by is the lawyer, what he said. These are the people who need to change their mindsets. What are we doing? Where are we headed as a country if these men can say these things?”
One of the convicted men, Mukesh Singh, was also interviewed for the documentary. He said of that night, “When being raped, she shouldn’t fight back. She should just be silent and allow the rape.”
Asha says: “In the three years since it has happened. I have realised it is only the law that will change things, because of the mindset people here have grown up with.”
This is a reference to India’s brutal and patriarchal society. “People are not afraid of the law as it is now. The community in India was very angry when Jyoti died, but nothing has changed.”
What does she have to say to those people who criticised her daughter for being out at 8.30pm, and for getting into such a bus?
“Those people who are pointing fingers are not face to face with reality. If Jyoti could have afforded a car and a driver [something which is routine in middle-class households in Delhi], she would have stepped out of the cinema and in to that car. But not everyone has money, and she had to take a bus, like so many others must.”
Asha is giving this interview because, “maybe some of the people who read it will think about it, and do something to help protect women and girls in India. [My hope is] that people will know what is happening here in our country. That they know justice has still not been done for Jyoti. I keep writing to the prime minister’s office, and I do not get any answers. [One of the photographs in the cabinet is of Asha meeting with Modi to talk about her daughter’s case.] Nothing has changed. Children are being gang-raped.”
When I ask how she wants to remember her daughter, Asha’s eyes fill with tears and she gives involuntary small wails. Her face looks utterly haunted. It is the worst moment I have ever experienced as a reporter.
“It’s been almost three years since she died, and it’s getting harder and harder to remember all the good times, the happy times.
“All I can think about now is the terrible time at the end, the terrible pain Jyoti was going through in her last days. I cannot sleep at night. I am only half living.”
‘We have killings every day’
Raies Ul Haq Ahmad Sikander is a recently qualified lawyer, whose area of interest is criminal law. I meet the 25-year-old to get his perspective on justice in India.
Sikandar tells me that of the 28 judges in India’s Supreme Court, only one is female. “The judiciary is male-dominated – like everything else. It’s not because women are not capable of being judges. Women don’t get elevated because it is considered by the men who make the decisions that they will be too emotional and they will be incapable of being impartial.”
Sikandar talks about the unofficial systems of justice that exist in rural India, where a “community of elders” practises a form of village law known as Khap Panchayat. “They are always men.”
It is supposed to be a system to solve small disputes about agriculture and land without the expense of going to formal courts. Mostly, it works. But in some villages, these groups of men have their own kangaroo courts and have made ghastly edicts.
In January 2014, a 20-year-old woman in west Bengal was tied to a tree and gang raped by 13 men from her village when her relationship with a man from another village was deemed offensive by her “community of elders”.
Sikandar says that, as a man in India, he is privileged in many ways that women are not. “It starts in the home,” he says. “Men and women do different things. My mother was a college professor, and she gave up her job to look after me and my brother. It was considered normal. It was expected.
“The expectation is that once the woman is married, she takes care of the household, raises children and is a good wife. I know I am privileged. I can do what I want. Women are supposed to get married. For a man, it’s cool to be unmarried for much longer.”
Sikandar tries hard not to be blunt, but he admits frankly that he remains a little mystified as to why the world reacted with such revulsion towards Jyoti Singh’s rape and subsequent death.
Though he is clear that it was a horrendous act of violence, the grim fact is that “there are more horrible rapes than that one happening all the time. There are worse cases. We have killings every day. It’s just that those incidents never get space in the papers.”
He sees the media attention as having been both helpful and counterproductive in highlighting violence against women. “There were more media reports of other cases afterwards, but the more reports there were, the more people got used to them. Unless cases are not as brutal as the bus case, then some people might say, it’s an okay rape: the woman didn’t die as a result.”
Sikandar cites one case that made international news in May 2014. In this incident, two teenage cousins were gang-raped by four men in their village of Katra in Uttar Pradesh and then hanged from the same mango tree. They were Dalit girls, which means, in the Indian caste system, they came from the most disadvantaged caste.
“Usually cases involving Dalit girls never get reported, because they happen all the time, but that one did,” he says.
Sikandar thinks that things have become worse for women in recent years. “Violence was confined to families, inside the house and now it is everywhere that women step out.”
How does he see things changing in the future, for the better of women everywhere in India? Though Sikandar is a lawyer, he does not share Asha Singh’s view of what laws can achieve.
“Laws change nothing. It has to start from your home, educating boys that girls are equal. Look at the fact that some university hostels have different curfew times for girls than boys. How can you lock up half the students of a university? It’s absurd. It’s not a solution to violence to tell people not to go out.”
‘Rape is joked about’
Amitabh Kumar works at the Centre for Social Research, a Delhi-based non-governmental organisation established in 1983 to campaign against gender-based violence. The organisation’s office in the southern suburb of Vasant Kunj is less than 1km from where Jyoti Singh was picked up in the bus, and it was the first organisation to get a call from the police alerting them to the particularly brutal rape.
As the public point of contact with the organisation, Kumar was one of the first people to learn about the incident and the extent of the atrocity.
“Before that day, our organisation had only 3,000 likes on its Facebook page,” he says. “We put up a notice on our page that morning about a protest in response to what had happened. It was shared more than 100,000 times that day.”
By evening, thousands of Indian people of all ages and backgrounds had gathered at India Gate in the capital to protest.
Kumar describes Jyoti’s gang rape and the ensuing protest as “the biggest turning point in the women’s movement in modern India”.
“It was the only movement in India that did not have a leader. It had zero funding. It was a very pure and passionate protest by people of all age groups: a protest against patriarchy and violence.
“I have never seen such a mix of people at a protest. It was such an honest crowd, and there was only one agenda. These people were not trained activists.”
He draws attention to the social background of the five men who raped Jyoti. “Those five men grew up in extreme poverty and violence. They have been raped as children. What you and I understand as violence is normality for them.”
He is hopeful that things will slowly change for women in India. “Somewhere along the way of progress, India focused on economic capital and forgot to look at social capital. We have the most complex of technology and yet there is a still a patriarchy.”
Does he think things have changed since 2012? “The same people who were cracking rape jokes before 2012 will now hopefully think three times about it now.”
I ask for an example. “People say things like, ‘India raped Australia in cricket’ when they win. Rape is joked about. It has become something that men could do to women and something that is not really [seen as] worse than staring at her.”
Like almost everyone else I speak to in Delhi, Kumar is critical of the government’s lack of leadership in trying to stop violence against women. “It is not that campaigning can’t be done,” he says. “The government have led a very successful public health campaign about dengue fever. Why can they not go head-on about violence against women in the same way?”
‘A four-year-old girl is abducted’ Ranjana Kumari is the long-standing and highly-respected director of the Centre for Social Research, and the author of several books on women’s rights. “Women by and large have not been the priority of any of our governments,” she says.
India, Kumari says, “is a traditional society, and any such society transferring from a feudal, patriarchal form to a modern one is going to encounter much more problems along the way.
“On one side, you have a whole rising generation of educated young women and, on the other, a whole generation of men who think they are entitled to inflict violence on women. It creates tension and by that I specifically mean domestic violence.
Kumari explains the illegal, but thriving, phenomena of gender selection in vitro. All over India, especially in rural areas, she says, boys are preferred to girls, and ultrasound scans that reveal girls often result in abortion.
It’s not only a rural problem. In Delhi this month, all the national newspapers – The Times of India, The Indian Express, The Hindustan Times – reported on the recent registration of births in 89 Delhi hospitals and nursing homes. For every 1,000 boys born in Delhi last September, only 285 girls were born.
“Such a grossly poor sex ratio cannot be a matter of chance,” admitted Satyendra Jain, Delhi’s health minister.
The Centre for Social Research has five centres in Delhi, each serving between 5,000 and 50,000 women who have experienced domestic violence, including marital rape, which is not illegal in India.
I visit the office in Chattarpur, a suburb in the west of Delhi. I am there to meet Rekha Dubey, a counsellor in domestic violence, but as she speaks I am distracted by a large poster behind her. It is headed, “When is a rape victim not required to give the proof of her being raped?” The answers come via a number of drawings illustrating different situations. One is captioned, “In hospitals”.
The drawing is of a wide-eyed woman lying in a bed while a man in a white coat wearing a stethoscope holds up a syringe; the clear inference is that the woman is about to be drugged and sexually assaulted. Other drawings refer to situations of “gang rape”, rape in “police stations” and in “women protection centers”.
The knowledge that Indian women are in danger of being raped in hospitals, institutions that are meant to protect people at their most vulnerable, by medical practitioners is horrifying.
There are many examples of the ongoing violation of human rights of women and girls in India. In the 12 days I spend in Delhi, the following four incidents occur.
A four-year-old girl is abducted while playing outside by a neighbour offering her a toffee. She is raped, bitten all over her body, slashed with razors and left for dead on railway tracks. She undergoes surgery for a colostomy, such are her internal injuries. She remains hospitalised.
A two-year-old girl is separated from her family during a power cut when a generator fails at an outdoor evening festival. She is later found raped, bleeding and unconscious in a park under a bush. Two teenage boys, neighbours of the child, have since been held.
The same night, a five-year-old is raped in another part of Delhi by a neighbour who lives in the same slum dwelling as her family.
A 14-year-old girl who was trafficked from Jharkhand and employed as a maid Da cupboard of her employer’s home. She has been repeatedly beaten up to five times daily using blunt objects and given only two chapattis a day to eat. Officials report that the girl was trafficked to a Delhi employment agency by her uncle.
These four stories, appalling as they are, are remarkable in only one respect. They made the news chiefly because they happened in the country’s capital city. Many, many similar cases in rural and urban India – a country with a population of 1.28 billion people – go unheard.
At the Crisis Management Centre in Chattarpur, domestic violence counsellor Rekha Dubey can see up to a dozen women a day. She shows me a blank counselling case sheet. Among the questions that a woman attending the centre is asked is one headed, ‘Nature of the problem.’ There are 10 options:
n Physical harassment
n Mental harassment
n Harassment due to dowry
n Dowry death
n Doubt on character
n Rape/attempt to rape
n Harassment due to alcohol/drug consumption
What is “mental harassment”? “Not being given food, or being kept captive in her house,” Dubey explains. In most countries, those two alone would constitute very serious crimes, necessitating an urgent report to a police station, rather than to a counselling service for women.
Although dowries are officially illegal in India, as child marriages supposedly are, they feature twice on this list. “Dowries are still very much part of marriages; something like in 95 per cent of cases,” Amitabh Kumar had told me. “There are various ways of hiding it, but it exists in most marriages. We should be asking as a society, why are men getting paid to get married? It gives all the power to men.”
Dowries take the form of material objects: cars, houses, gold, white goods. “A middle-class family gives a fancy car, a poorer man a motorcycle. The bride’s family are always under pressure to give more.”
Thus girls, especially in poorer families, are seen as a drain on a family’s resources for the future, right from the moment they are born.
“Dowry harassment” means a woman getting beaten, tortured, raped, starved, or threatened with murder by her wider family of in-laws. Dowry harassment refers to harassment after the marriage, when a husband or in-laws demand more from the woman, who is frequently from a family that literally cannot afford to give any more.
“Dowry death” refers to the fact that some women who arrive at the centre are suicidal because of the pressure being put on them to come up with yet more material goods for their in-laws. Dubey says many women in India have taken their own lives following such harassment.
“Doubt on character” refers to suspicion on the part of a husband that his wife is having an affair. It is almost impossible to prove she is not, but the threats from a husband or an in-law can be life-threatening. Women suspected of having affairs have had acid thrown in their faces. Others have been found dead, dowsed in kerosene, which family members have attempted to pass off as accidental “kitchen deaths”.
‘Her husband murdered their son’
Dubey introduces me to five women. They speak only Hindi, so we talk via a translator, Shreya Agarwal, a psychology student from Delhi University.
All have survived various kinds of domestic violence; they tell their stories quietly and with dignity. Some give their first names, because they do not use a second.
Salma Begum (40), was married when she was 15, and moved into a house of in-laws that consisted of nine other couples. “Her husband beat her a lot. Her in-laws beat her too. They all wanted more money. They told her she was a burden on them.” Begum endured this for decades before seeking help.
Why does she think her husband treated her so badly, I ask. “It was all about money,” comes the answer. “Educated men are more sensible, but an uneducated man thinks a wife is a burden,”
Farida (35) was beaten regularly by her husband with sticks and his fists “whenever he got angry”. Her husband got angry between two and three times a day, but only ever inside the house, never outside in public. Her husband then “started keeping another woman” and lost interest in the two sons he had had with Farida.
“Her husband murdered their son last year.”
I ask the translator to repeat what she has just said. She does.
Then she continues: “It was revenge. Farida had a plot of land that was her under her name and her husband used false power of attorney to take it away from her. It was a game of money.
“At 9.30pm at night, people came for her son and took him away. He did not come back. He was found at 10am. He had been killed by a stone to his head. To punish her.”
Nageena (34) was beaten daily by her husband. Why? “If one of the children fell over. If one of the children cried. If she asked for money. Because of small things.”
Neetu Kaur (35) was beaten constantly by her husband and in-laws because she could not carry a pregnancy to term. She miscarried six times. “She was beaten with sticks and had kerosene thrown at her.”
Kaur was living in a village called Kishangarh in a remote rural location until three months ago. She was forced to “do heavy labouring in the fields. She had only chapattis and chutney to eat, never anything else”.
The gold jewellery that came with her dowry was sold. The white goods and electrical items that also came with her dowry – a cooler, fridge and television – remained unused and went rusty, because there was no electricity in the house, something they did not reveal to her parents prior to marriage.
Finally, in desperation at the beatings and constantly hungry, she phoned her father in Delhi three months ago, and he rescued her.
Compared with some, Kaur was lucky in that she had a family member who rescued her, albeit years after the abuse had begun. She is now living with her father and she has enough to eat for the first time in years.
Rajkumari says that “a daughter does not belong to the family she is born into. She belongs to her husband’s family. Sons are to be kept in the family house. Sons will get you dowries, but with daughters, you have to give dowries.”
Had she heard about Jyoti Singh. She had. “The boys who did this to her should be hanged.”
Is it the worst story she has ever heard? The 50-year-old shakes her head. One of the worst, but she says there are cases like this every day.
33,764 rapes in one year
An article in The Times of India on October 21st about domestic violence stated flatly that “Violence against women is rampant,” and reported there were 33,764 rapes recorded by India’s National Crime Records Bureau in 2013.
The newspaper also referred to a landmark National Family Health survey, carried out within the past decade, which surveyed 125,000 women across 28 states.
Of that number, “over 40 per cent of women reported being beaten by their husbands at some point. Over 51 per cent of the 75,000 men interviewed didn’t find anything wrong with assaulting their wives”.
I ask Dubey which of the cases that have come before her stands out as the worst. “It was a case of trafficking,” she says.
A girl of 16 was abducted and trafficked to the state of Uttar Pradesh. She was sold to a gang of men who kept her locked up in a house and “who used her as they wanted every day. She was raped every single day by at least five men”.
After two months, the police came looking for the gang, who were merely informed they would be in trouble if they did not release the woman. The gang blindfolded the woman and left her in a public space with a mobile phone.
When she called her parents to come and rescue her, they told her she had shamed the family by being raped and sent her to an orphanage.
“After a week or so, they felt guilty and took her out of the orphanage. They married her off right away.” Her husband, who knew of her abduction told her daily that she was “polluted” and he expected her to have sex with all of his friends. “It was not an ideal marriage for her.”
That woman, who is now separated from her husband, is attending the Chattarpur centre.
‘Rape is a bigger fear than murder’
I have dinner one evening with two young middle-class women, Sheeta Gupta (27) and Avanti Kumar (22). Gupta is a copywriter and Kumar is a law student.
One of the first things they discuss is how they arrived at the restaurant (it was dark outside) and how they will get home. “I came by my driver and asked him to wait for me,” Gupta says.
A relative of Kumar’s had dropped her off and one of her parents would collect her. Both their phones ping constantly from family members checking in on them for the duration of the dinner.
These women, and all those they know, do not go out in Delhi after dark – which falls at about 6.30pm year round – without making detailed transport plans, usually involving people they know.
Public transport, auto-rickshaws and even taxis such as those operated by Uber (in which women have been raped in the past in India), are not trusted.
They take cabs sometimes, but they speak matter-of-factly of routinely photographing their cab drivers and WhatsApping the pictures to family members while in the cab.
When Gupta takes the metro during the day, she uses a carriage that is for women only. “There is a need for it. It’s not really safe for women to travel in other compartments.
“Delhi is unsafe. You never know what’s going to happen. It could be a rape. It could be a murder.”
Gupta says: “Rape is a bigger fear than murder. If you die, it’s so easy. It’s done. It’s over. But if you have been raped, you are being talked about all the time, and it’s very, very humiliating.”
Women questioning intolerance
I have had my own experience of India’s patriarchy. I travelled extensively in the country for four months more than 20 years ago and this month spent almost two weeks in Delhi on this reporting trip.
Every bus, taxi, autorickshaw, cycle rickshaw I took was driven by a man. At every hotel, guest house and restaurant, the receptionists, managers, cleaners, waiters and chefs, were all exclusively and noticeably men.
Every tour guide I ever had was male. The offices where I bought onward tickets were staffed by men.
Even at this superficial level of observation of Indian society as a tourist, my overwhelming impression on both occasions is of a country where the men are in charge.
Gayatri Buragohain is the chief executive of FAT (Feminist Approach to Technology), an organisation that aims to empower women through technology. She was about 10 when she realised her only brother had privileges that she and her two sisters lacked. It started with the most basic human need of all: food.
“Our family were not well-to-do and my mother calculated how to spend every bit of money. My brother always got an egg when he wanted, but my sisters and I never did.
“Patriarchy starts in the home. From a very young age, you see whose job it is to go into the kitchen. Boundaries about how you dress, whether you are friends with boys or not, what time you should not be out after – they are meant to be about the security of the girl, but it’s really about the ‘honour’ of the person.
“Using the term ‘security’ for girls is really an excuse to hold them back from life and control them.
“Honour is directly related to power,” Buragohain says. “It’s really about power, and it’s always the man who has power over the woman in the family, and in society.”
What was normalised for so long in Indian society is now being challenged, she says. “Some women have started to question intolerance, and the patriarchal structure is being disrupted. Male egos are being bruised. The violence that is happening against women is not coming out of nowhere, because it has definitely got worse over the last few years.
“Even if a woman is doing all the things she is meant to be doing for her family, but she makes her voice heard in public, or is seen smiling and laughing outside, or has her head covering off – that is not acceptable to her husband, and then he will be violent against her.”
The 36-year-old Buragohain considers December 2012 to have been a catalyst for Indian women. “We had enough of the silence that has surrounded violence towards women,” she says. “Everyone was glued to the TV reporting. Everyone had an opinion, whether they supported the rapists or not.
“But there were also many who did not reflect inwards. The case was not only about what was going to happen to those five men, and whether they were going to be hanged or not. It was a reflection of what happens in India every day.”
There are many complex layers to society in India, and even those who live there have difficulty trying to unpick them. What stays sharpest in my mind, however, is something I saw immediately after departing the apartment complex where Asha and Badri Singh now live; an apartment in a different part of the city from where their daughter Jyoti grew up with them.
It is a prominent slogan painted on a wall directly opposite the street exit to the complex, a sign that Asha and Badri Singh cannot fail to see every time they leave their home. It says: “Have A Nice Day. Respect Women.”