India’s “Nirbhaya Movement”: What has Changed Since Then?

written by On March 16, 2020 in Gender Equality, India, Sexual Violence, WIIS Blog

By Susan McLoughlin, Program Assistant, WIIS Global

Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault and Violence 

After gaining vast amounts of national and global attention, Delhi’s “Nirbhaya” gang rape case became a pivotal turning point for India’s feminist movement. In the time since this case, India’s government has taken important steps to advance laws and policies regarding violence against women. Yet, there is still a gap between policy and practice. Without bridging this gap and creating a shift within the operation of the criminal justice system, women will continue to be vulnerable.  

On the evening of December 16th, 2012, Jyoti, a twenty-three year old student, was brutally gang raped by six men on a bus and died of complications two weeks later. Indian journalists dubbed Jyoti as “Nirbhaya,” meaning “fearless” in Hindi. Press used Nirbhaya to identify Jyoti due to the rape shield laws, which prohibit news outlets from publicly identifying victims of sexual assault. Her case sparked a monumental movement, known as the “Nirbhaya Movement,” which drew attention to the prevelance of sexual violence against women in India. 

Protests in the streets of Delhi after news broke of Nirbhaya's gang rape.

Protests and public pressure, both domestic and international, forced the Indian government to take action. They created a high-level committee, led by the former Chief of Justice of India, Justice Verma, called the Verma Committee. Their key recommendations were to widen the definition of “rape” to include non-penetrative sex, create new offenses for acts such as acid attacks and sexual harrassment, and increase penalties for those convicted of rape. These recommendations were all introduced into the Indian Penal Code (IPC) through the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 2013. 

The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) came out with a statement saying that sexual assault reports had risen, while convictions rates had decreased. Kirti Singh, a prominent women’s rights lawyer, stated that as a result, the National Commission for Women concluded a need to remodel sexual assault provisions in the IPC. These provisions included redefining rape, molestation and consent. 

Gender Sensitization classes given to rickshaw and taxi drivers in Delhi.

The National Council of Education Research and Training has since developed textbooks and lesson plans focused on “gender sensitization,” which aim to raise awareness of gender issues among school children. After the Nirbhaya movement, gender sensitization became very popular and was carried out through different programs and workshops. Delhi’s rickshaw and taxi drivers are now required to take a gender sensitization course in order to renew their commercial license. These two hour classes focus on teaching the drivers how to respect and ensure the safety of women passengers.

Many people were outraged by the sentencing of the rapists from Nirbhaya’s case. One of the perpetrators was 17 years old at the time of the rape, meaning he was a minor under the law. Although he was found guilty, the Juvenile Justice Board decided to send him to a “correction home” for a mere three years. The chairperson of the NGO that runs the correction home where his trial was conducted went so far as to say that the rapist “was a victim of circumstances,” further enraging protesters. 

Although India has made great strides in creating laws and government programs to address violence against women, there is a large gap between these laws and practical change. In 2018, the NCRB disclosed that 34,000 rapes were reported, 85% of which led to charges, but only 27% of which led to actual convictions. Additionally, rapes that result in murder are only reported as murders by the NCRB, meaning that statistics on rape are not completely representative. 

Students protesting the release of the juvenile from Nirbhaya's case.

In order for any tangible action to result from the various policy changes and government programs that took place after the Nirbhaya case, India’s criminal justice system needs to take acts of violence against women more seriously. If not, this gap between practice and policy will continue to be a huge obstacle in ensuring the safety of women in India. 

However, the issue of violence against women is in no way specific to India. According to UN Women, an estimated 35% of women around the world experience physical and/or sexual violence within their lifetime. In 2017, an estimated 87,000 women worldwide were killed intentionally, and over half of these murders were perpetrated by intimate partners or family members. Although there are countless laws, interventions, and programs which focus on ending all forms of gender-based violence, this issue is still far too prevalent. 

Unless violence against women is treated like the crisis it is, nothing is going to change. UN Women has a list of interventions that work to end violence against women and can be applied in our daily lives: 1) Use the education of boys and girls as a means for prevention of violence. If you have children or young siblings, teach them about respectful relationships, affirmative consent, and non-violent mediation. 2) Increase women’s participation in decision-making processes. This can be done on any level, including in the office, in the home, and within interpersonal relationships. 3) Address the social norms and gender stereotypes that perpetuate this violence. It is important to speak up in your conversations with family and friends and break down these stereotypes. 4) Most importantly, don’t lose hope. Change will occur if we continue to fight against gender-based violence within both the public and private spheres. 

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