I was in a school in Delhi with 200 children recently. We were talking about sexual assault, and they asked: why does rape happen? Ten years ago, it would have been unthinkable for kids to discuss such subjects. But something has changed in India.
Every day the media is full of stories of violence towards women, but it took the horrific gang rape and death of a 23-year-old Delhi medical student last December to shock society into a wave of protests.
Women’s groups in India highighted the government’s failure to protect half its citizens and lobbied for a law to do more. Against expectations, in April, they got one.
The new law gives harsher sentences for rape, criminalises “Eve teasing” (a euphemism for sexual harassment) and made it a crime for police to ignore complaints of violence against women. There is a sense that someone is finally listening to women.
A lot is still to be done – for one, marital rape is not recognized as a crime. But the law has been celebrated as a step forward, by women who for too long have been forced to stand still.
Perhaps most importantly, conversations about women’s rights are taking place in India, and at a much louder volume than before.
Urvashi Butalia co-founded Kali for Women, India’s first feminist publishing house