Protesting against sexual violence: the journey of India’s feminist groups

by Vindhya Undurti

© Undurti

Vindhya Undurti is currently Professor of Psychology at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Hyderabad, India. She has co-edited the Handbook of International Feminisms: Perspectives on Psychology, Women, Culture and Rights (2011) and has worked extensively on issues of domestic violence, women’s mental health, and the social psychology of women’s political activism.

On a cold December night in 2012, a 23-year old woman, a paramedical student was brutally gang raped and grievously assaulted, and her male friend injured in a private transport bus in India's capital city, Delhi. While the young woman was battling for life in hospital and following her death two weeks later, there was an outpouring of outrage and grief not only in Delhi but across the cities and smaller towns of India, a phenomenon perhaps unparalleled in recent history of public agitation in the country. The nation-wide outcry was primarily directed against the apathy and insensitivity of the criminal justice system of the state, as seen in the abysmally low conviction rate in rape cases (24% in 2011, National Crime Records Bureau).

On the side lines of these protests were public pronouncements made by some representatives of the political class squarely holding women responsible for sexual violence. These statements ranged from blaming the victim for venturing out late in the night to attributing the public visibility and mobility of women to the 'corrupt influence of western lifestyles' and modern 'urban values', and by implication, to women falling prey to sexual crimes. Women were also exhorted to be 'fully' clothed and to remain confined to the 'safety and security' of the home to prevent being raped.

© Times of India

The women's movement in India has been actively engaging with both these sets of reactions - of demands for greater accountability on the part of the state and with attitudes clamouring for women to retreat into the private realm. In more than their 30-year long struggle, feminist groups have worked for recognition of violence against women – as human rights violation, as exclusion from rights and resources and as an obstacle to development, equality and peace – linking the struggle in India to the international discourse on violence against women. On the one hand, feminist groups have focused on the state for amendments to the law - for broadening the definition of rape, issue of consent, burden of proof, arrest procedures and questions during trial. While doing so, their efforts have been directed towards demanding greater accountability from the state in providing timely deterrent measures for a secure environment for all citizens. On the other hand, women's groups have challenged the persistent association of social attitudes of honour and shame with women's bodies. Furthermore, a key contribution of the women's groups to our understanding of sexual violence has been to move beyond the tendency to see rape in interpersonal terms of male power. Instead, different kinds of rape are expressions of multiple claims to power - for instance, rape by figures of authority (as in custodial rape) and of rape of women from socially and economically disadvantaged groups by more privileged sections. Furthermore, of all the different crimes such as murder, rape, kidnapping and abduction, robbery, and arson reported against members of the Scheduled castes and Scheduled tribes (the two major disadvantaged sections), the incidence of rape is the highest (National Crime Records Bureau 2011).


Indeed, one of the big challenges for the feminist struggle in India has been to place sexual violence within a framework of violations of constitutional rights, and shifting it from the widespread paradigm of shame and honour. A major issue that had led to the emergence of the women's movement in post-independence India was the rape of a sixteen-year old girl, Mathura from a disadvantaged social group, by two police men in a police station in 1972. The judgement by the Supreme Court of India in 1978, acquitting the accused, marked a turning point in the history of organizing for women's rights. The newly-formed feminist groups demanded changes in the criminal law dealing with rape, and highlighted the role and complicity of the judiciary in condoning sexual violence. This campaign led to the rape law, enacted as part of the Indian Penal Code in 1860, being amended more than a century later in 1983. For the first time in post-independence India, the 1983 amendment sought to place rape within the discourse of human rights violations of bodily integrity and not within the discourse of regulation of sexuality of women.

A key difference in the anti-rape campaigns three decades ago and now is perhaps the underlining of women's rights to mobility and freedom and to live and work in secure environments as more and more women began to move into public spaces. It is not as if these freedoms were not emphasized earlier. But today, as an unprecedented number of women in both urban centres and rural areas are seeking opportunities for work and livelihoods, for carving their autonomous selves, the threat of sexual violence has emerged as a major obstacle to their aspiration to live with dignity.

In the nation-wide outcry following the Delhi gang rape, the government of India appointed a commission headed by a former Chief Justice of India, J.S. Verma to review the laws on sexual crimes. By treating sexual violence as serious violation of bodily integrity and not as a crime against honour, and by identifying "failure of governance" as the key cause for its perpetuation, the Verma commission report has reiterated the position taken by feminist groups all along. However, as India marches towards economic development, feminist groups have to increasingly contend with growing sexual violence as a grave threat to the ideals of a democratic state (28 February 2012).

Further Reading

Singh, N.; Butalia, U. (2012) Challenging impunity on sexual violence in South Asia: Beginning a discussion. Economic and Political Weekly, July 14, vol. xlviii no 28, 58-63.

Gangoli, G. (2007) Indian feminisms: Law, patriarchies and violence in India. Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing Ltd.

Book recommendation

Handbook of International Feminisms (2001): Perspectives on Psychology, Women, Culture and Rights, Rutherford, A.; Capdevila, R.; Undurti, V.; Palmary, I. (Eds.), New York.