NEW DELHI— In the Indian capital, a judge has sentenced four men to death in connection with the brutal gang rape and murder of a young woman late last year. The attack shook India, with many watching to see if justice would be done and whether the attention surrounding the case would translate to actual change in how crimes against women are addressed.
Calls to hang the convicts by the woman’s parents and the public were answered Friday when the four men, Vinay Sharma, Pawan Gupta, Akshay Thakur, Mukesh Singh, received the death penalty in the fast-track court.
In his guilty verdict earlier in the week, Judge Yogesh Khanna noted the depravity of the crime, with the men using iron rods to brutalize and “intentionally” kill the “helpless victim.”
The 23-year-old woman was returning home from a movie with a male friend in New Delhi when they accepted a ride on a private bus. The details of what followed the night of December 16 shocked the nation. The woman was repeatedly raped and tortured, her friend badly beaten. Both were thrown off the bus, bloody and battered. The young physiotherapy student died two weeks later at a Singapore hospital.
Following the attack, people poured onto the streets of major Indian cities in angry demonstrations. Political scientist Radha Kumar, director of the Delhi Policy Group, said the public fury delegitimized the “awful legitimacy” society often gives acts of violence against women, with many identifying with the young woman and her story.
“The name itself is symbolic, that they called her 'braveheart,' " noted Kumar. "She was not a victim, she was a fighter. She struggled for everything. She struggled for her education, she struggled for a job, she struggled to have a life in the city.”
And this struggle is the same for so many other women, particularly in New Delhi, who say they feel unsafe whether it be on a public bus or walking home after dark.
Prompted by the December gang rape, the Delhi Policy Group put out a gender scorecard last month to examine the status of women using indicators such as sex ratio, health, education, political representation, decision-making, employment and crime. India failed in all categories except employment.
The report found crimes against women have increased 25 percent from 2008 to more than 244,000 reported cases in 2012. New Delhi retains the infamous title of the rape capital of India.
The gender scorecard found that not only are crimes against women under-reported, the conviction rate for cases that make it to court are only about 24 percent.
In response to the December 16 gang rape and the protests surrounding the attack, the government passed anti-rape laws and set up special fast-track courts in the capital.
Prominent women’s rights activist and director of the New Delhi-based Center for Social Research Ranjana Kumari said the police investigation, seven-month trial, conviction and sentencing of the men involved in the brutal attack will serve as a key precedent for the 90,000 rape cases that are still pending nationwide.
“My hope is that every rapist will be punished," Kumari said. "All 90,000 girls who are awaiting some conviction, some judgment will be delivered a judgment quickly and they don’t have to wait endlessly to get the judgment, their family also needs justice.”
On a cultural front, Kumari said the case and the attention surrounding it may help shift attitudes in that women may be less likely to remain silent on rape and other sexual assaults at the risk of being deemed “impure” by society.
“That is why women don’t report [sexual assaults], because of social shame and parents want to hush up cases," noted Kumari. " After this, I definitely think there are a lot more women who are already reporting and will report in the future.”
As for the four men who received the death penalty for the December 16 attack, their sentence must be confirmed by the Delhi High Court. Their lawyer says they will appeal.
The parents of their victim tell reporters that their daughter has finally received justice but that the fight is far from over.