Much still needs doing to make women in India feel safe

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 September, 2013, 1:52am

Text and Twitter messages among women in India often end with "take care" or "be safe". It is a recent phenomenon, one consequence of the outpouring of anger after the fatal beating and rape of a physiotherapy student by six men on a New Delhi bus last December. The nation has since been soul-searching as to how to make streets safer for women and improve respect. But for all the debate in society and government promises, there will be little change unless there is a properly functioning law-and-order system.

Authorities fast-tracked sexual-violence cases after nation-wide protests. The brutality of the rape shocked the conservative country, highlighting a little-discussed, but common-place crime. Arrests were unusually swift and the first sentence was handed down last week. Verdicts are expected against four other men this month; the sixth was found dead in his prison cell in March. But the widely perceived lightness of the first sentence, on a man who was a juvenile at the time of the outrage, and another highly publicised gang rape in the commercial capital, Mumbai, have raised more questions and heightened demands for tougher action.

Rape is only part of the problem for India's women. Although years of strong economic growth have improved education and job opportunities, they remain second-class citizens. The discrimination starts at birth - female infanticide is routine - and males get better nutrition and health care. Women are groped and harassed on public transport, afraid to go out alone after dark and abused by husbands and in-laws.

Teaching men how to treat women better is a matter of overcoming tradition and practice. That will obviously need education and time. The outcry over the rape has brought the issue to the fore, sparking invaluable discussion. But the foundations of a safe society lie in good laws, effective policing, deterrent penalties, and courts that function properly. For now, that is far from the case in India and little will change for women without far-reaching reforms.