Danielle Rajendram is a Research Associate in the Lowy Institute's International Security Program whose work focuses on India and China-India relations.
The brutal gang-rape and subsequent death of a 23 year-old woman in New Delhi has shifted gender relations and sexual violence against women to the centre of India's political debate. New Delhi, where a woman is estimated to be raped once every twenty minutes, has been the scene of outraged protests since mid-December, with demonstrators demanding an end to impunity for offenders and concrete measures to guarantee women's safety.
Given India's depressing record of crimes against women, why has this incident provoked such an immense reaction?
Despite progressive gender laws and the involvement of women at the highest levels of its political leadership, India is ranked as the worst G20 country in which to be a woman, after Saudi Arabia. Even with chronic under-reporting, 2011 witnessed a 9.2% rise in reported rape cases, with 630 reported in New Delhi alone.
Beneath these crime statistics is a larger, more systemic problem for India's women. Economists estimate that two million women in effect go 'missing' in India each year through systemic and life-long discrimination. As evidenced by India's skewed gender ratios, this process starts even before birth through sex-selective abortion and female infanticide, while gender-based violence and poor maternal health care are significant contributing factors later in life.
The broader issues raised by the Delhi gang-rape have resonated strongly with India's burgeoning urban middle class. The victim was a young, educated, upwardly mobile, first-generation urban Indian – someone with whom India's middle class could closely identify. As a result, she has become synonymous with the ambitions and political frustrations of an entire emerging, aspirational class and generation.
India's urban middle class is becoming a vocal and influential political force. Aided by social media, the middle class is increasingly able to mobilise as a coherent group, as evidenced by the crucial role it played in the anti-corruption protests throughout 2011 and 2012. While constituting roughly 15% of India's population today, the middle class is projected to grow to 20.3% by 2015-16, and 37.2% by 2025-26, and as a result its influence can be expected to rise further.
Meanwhile, India's political establishment, which tends to focus on vote-winning with the rural poor, is seen as being out of touch with the concerns of its youthful, urban constituents. While the median age of the Indian population is roughly 25, the median age of cabinet members is closer to 65, and as a result India's youth is feeling politically marginalised.
The response of India's political leadership to the protests has so far been inadequate, with insensitive comments coming from Delhi's police commissioner, India's Home Minister and the president's son, further fueling the protests. This inadequacy is reinforced by the fact only 11% of seats in India's parliament are held by women, placing it 110th out of 145 countries. In addition, six serving state legislators have been charged with rape, while 36 others have faced charges of sexual harassment, molestation or assault.
So far, the Government has implemented only band aid solutions to improve women's safety in Delhi.
The question now will be whether the middle class will be able to maintain this political momentum long enough to translate it into concrete action on women's rights, or whether the collective anger will peter out in the same way as the anti-corruption protests. If what we are witnessing is the beginning of large-scale middle class activism in India and the blooming of a new feminist consciousness, 2014 may be the first year in which women's rights and gender equality become defining issues in India's general elections.
Photo by Flickr user ramesh_lalwani.