Adjacent to the Delhi’s Chief Minister’s office in the capital, six women answer a stream of phone calls from women in distress. The toll-free 181 number was set up by the government after last year’s brutal gang rape of a 23-year-old student in the capital led to her death.
The response to the hotline has been unprecedented: more than 1,500 calls every day.
More than half of the callers complain about sexual harassment or domestic violence, and roughly one in five calls fall in the “red” color code, which means they involve serious crimes: grievous hurt, rape, dowry harassment.
Women’s issues were propelled to the center of Indian public debate in 2013, following the horrific December 2012 gang rape of a young student.
While widespread street protests led to the enactment of stricter laws for violence against women, allegations of sexual misconduct against some prominent people brought the issue of sexual harassment at the workplace to the forefront.
According to Khadijah Faruqui, a women’s rights activist who heads the toll-free distress line, although these problems are old, the shattering of the “conspiracy of silence” surrounding the crimes is new.
“The good part about my experience is that women have become very assertive," she says. "They have shed that taboo — you know, that 'I should not talk about being sexually abused, because that will give them a bad name.'”
Crimes persist despite outrage
The fury of young street protesters who rallied across the country in days following the high-profile gang rape story marked a crucial turning point in India’s approach and handling of women’s issues. But the violence against women has not stopped, and disturbing reports of rapes and even gang rapes continue to pour in.
But under a new, stringent law passed in the months since the gang rape, penalties for rape are stiffer, and stalking and voyeurism are now counted as crimes.
For Ranjana Kumari, member of the National Commission for Empowerment of Women, a small shift in attitudes is apparent in parts of the historically conservative country, where for decades women accepted the treatment they received.
“A majority of Indian women are still under the cloud of all kinds of social and legal pressure, but certainly urban, educated women are now much stronger," she says. "This is the kind of beginning of change where you do see voices coming forward and some kind of leadership has to come from middle class, educated, more confident women, and that is what we are seeing happen now.”
In the streets of Delhi, many echo that rising confidence among women. Authorities say the higher number of rape cases being reported is due at least in part to more women registering complaints in a country where insensitive police and a slow-moving judicial system often leave victims disinclined to speak up.
If sexual violence was the concern at the start of the year, two cases of sexual harassment at the workplace drew headlines in recent months. One involved the arrest of a prominent magazine editor Tarun Tejpal on charges of sexually assaulting a young female employee in a hotel elevator during a magazine sponsored event in Goa. A second case involved high-profile, retired Supreme Court judge A. K. Ganguly, who was investigated for sexual misconduct following complaints filed by a law intern.
Women’s activists say both cases involving powerful men might never have seen the light of day a year ago, but that 2013's new sensitization to women’s issues has forced them into the spotlight.
While both cases will test the newly tightened laws in the days to come, slow prosecution remains a huge concern. Outcry following last December's gang rape ensured speedy justice for the victim in a fast track court, where four of the assailants were sentenced to death.
But for thousands of others, the wait will be painfully slow.
“Now that all the cases have been investigated, now that all the complaints have been filed to the court, there is huge amount of delay in dispensing justice to women victims of sexual assault," says Kumari, adding that she laments government failure over the past year to augment a system that fast-tracks all cases.
"Unless we will streamline the total justice system, [unless] we sensitize the law enforcement machinery and judiciary, and unless there is political will, there is a total lack of political will to address this issue.”
Room for optimism
But even if political will remains elusive, optimism can be found in other places. New Delhi-based sociologist Dipankar Gupta, for example, points to the spontaneous social mobilization of both men and women that followed last December's gang rape.
These young people hold out hope of ushering in change which could go beyond women’s issues and show “us a different kind of politics.”
“They have not been internally fractious," says Gupta. "They have not been on cleavages and divisions of society, but in almost every case it is the citizens demanding services as citizens from the state. In this, the young people are going to play a major role, and I just hope that they keep on at it and don’t give in to the old bogies of caste, class and other such divisions.”
Women activists say there is still much work to do. They worry that change will be much slower to come to the countryside, where two-thirds of all Indians live.