It’s easy to blame a retrograde culture that’s hostile to women, but rapid transformation is also part of the story. Flush with the freedoms of the new India, many of its citizens have left traditional village life, but they have not found a new set of ethics in urban areas. As a result, sexual violence is flourishing.
I am one of those Westerners intrigued by India’s rapid growth and expanding social mobility. I lived in New Delhi while reporting on the country and the rest of South Asia from 2002 to 2007. In that time, there were hundreds of documented incidents of sexual violence in the capital. Delhi accounted for one-quarter of all rapes recorded in India in 2011, according to the National Crime Records Bureau.When I lived there, Indian women regularly urged me to move elsewhere — anywhere! — calling Delhi “India’s rape capital” and telling me terrifying stories of how unsafe the city was.
Of course, most Delhi residents don’t have the option to leave, nor do they want to. The city’s population has swelled in the past two decades with migrants from India’s poor rural areas. For them, Delhi represents opportunity. About 350 million Indians now live in cities, and an additional 250 million are expected to move to urban areas in the next two decades.
The parents of the rape victim, who died a week ago, had moved the family to a middle-class New Delhi neighborhood from a village in Uttar Pradesh, one of India’s poorest states. Call centers and the hospitality sector in the capital have opened up jobs for even the slightly educated, making the middle-class dream seem more attainable than ever.
All too often, though, India’s rural migrants do not find the education and work opportunities that they expect in the cities. Poverty, low-caste status and gender still prevent many from advancing. In Uttar Pradesh and other northern Hindi-speaking states, for instance, girls’ literacy rates hover between 33 percent and 50 percent,according to the United Nations. The national literacy rate for boys is 75 percent.
This young woman’s family had, unusually, placed their hopes in their daughter. They had sold land to help send her to college. According to interviews with the woman’s parents, she had urged her two younger brothers to follow her to college. Having recently qualified as a trainee physiotherapist in a private Delhi hospital, she beat the odds and landed herself in a solidly middle-class profession.
It makes sense that this attack happened in Delhi, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world. Delhi appears to welcome modern women who go to college and work outside the home. But the city is not nearly as open as advertised. Because it is filled with migrants who speak dozens of languages and represent every caste and religion — people who are united only by a traditional, rural background — the city seems conflicted about what is acceptable.