India is the second-worst hit country in the world when it comes to Covid-19, but there is another epidemic that has proved far harder to contain – and for which there is no simple vaccination. It is one that has become ingrained within Indian society, rooted in patriarchy, fueled by gender inequality, and is infecting the world’s largest democracy without showing any sign of abating. The sickness? Rape culture. This is a social environment where sexual violence is normalised, impunity is widespread, and victim-blaming rife; meaning rape becomes increasingly common.
This is embodied by the story of Jyoti Singh. Almost exactly eight years ago, at 8.30pm on 16 December 2012, the 23-year-old physiotherapy student boarded a bus in the capital, New Delhi, to go back home after watching Life of Pi at the cinema with a male friend. That bus journey would be her last. The six men onboard (including the driver) beat up her friend and then took it in turns to rape her, before brutally assaulting her with an iron rod, while the bus drove round Delhi’s highways. After around an hour, the men left them both naked on the side of the road. They thought she was dead.
For two weeks Singh clung to life, receiving treatment at Singapore’s Mount Elizabeth Hospital, which specialises in multi-organ transplants (most of her intestines had been torn out), before dying of her injuries on 29 December. While lying in her hospital bed she told the police everything, including the names of the men; she said she wanted justice. All six of them were convicted of gang rape and murder, and in March 2020 four of the men were hanged (one of them allegedly committed suicide in jail in 2013, while the other, who was 17 at the time of the attack, was released in 2015 after serving three years in a reform facility). One of the men, Mukesh Singh, blamed his victim for what happened, saying in the BBC documentary India’s Daughter: “A decent girl will not roam around at nine o’clock at night. A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy. Housework and housekeeping is for girls, not roaming in discos and bars at night, doing wrong things, wearing wrong clothes.” He said they did it to “teach her a lesson”.
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