National uproar over young woman's death triggers public conversation about rape

NEW DELHI —The body of a young rape victim was flown in to New Delhi from Singapore early Sunday and was cremated within two hours at a funeral ceremony under a thick winter morning fog. The ceremony was attended by the woman’s family and some 200 neighbors, as well as India’s top leaders.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh went to the airport to receive the body and console the woman’s parents. The funeral ceremony was marked by an uneasy hush, one official said, and was very different from the angry uproar and street protests that have galvanized the nation over the past two weeks.

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India is preparing for more protests after the death of a 23-year old woman who was the victim of a gang rape.

India is preparing for more protests after the death of a 23-year old woman who was the victim of a gang rape.

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The funeral was not telecast by India’s television news channels, which have come under criticism from officials here for sensationalizing the protests.

On Saturday, thousands of Indians poured into the streets of cities across the country to mourn the death of the woman, who was gang-raped nearly two weeks ago in an incident that triggered a national conversation about violence against women.

Police announced that the six men arrested in connection with the attack were charged with murder after the woman, who suffered a brain injury and other internal damage, died at a hospital in Singapore.

The government, responding to rising anger, promised to put the trial on a fast track.

“We have already seen the emotions and energies this incident has generated,” Singh said in a statement Saturday. “These are perfectly understandable reactions from a young India and an India that genuinely desires change.”

To prevent a repeat of last week’s massive protests, many streets in the capital were blocked by police and barricades and 10 Metro stations were shut down Saturday.

The protesters, many of whom wore black tape across their mouths and held candles, were not allowed to march on the central boulevard, called India Gate, as they did last week. Police boxed them into a tiny street in the heart of the city where they sat on the ground chanting slogans and singing songs.

In other parts of the city, mourners also marched silently along sidewalks and in neighborhood parks. As night fell, many gathered in cities nationwide, holding candles in tribute to the victim.

“Every Indian girl has died with her today because we all felt so connected emotionally with her,” Anubhuti Shukla, a 23-year-old communications intern, said as she texted her friends information about the candlelight vigil in New Delhi. “If we forget the issues after her death, it would be the real shame. She died, but she woke us up.”

The victim was returning home from a movie and had boarded a bus with a male friend on the night of Dec. 16 when four men, including the bus driver, allegedly beat them up and gang-raped her. The victims were then thrown out of the bus and left to die.

On Saturday, the stop where the woman boarded the bus had been turned into an informal memorial, with dozens of people leaving messages and flowers.

Indian authorities have been bitterly criticized for not doing enough to keep women safe, and later for attacking the protesters with canes, tear gas shells and water cannons. Many doctors even questioned the government’s decision to send the victim to Singapore in such a fragile condition, with some saying it was a political move and not a medical one, aimed at containing the street protests.

“She should have been stabilized first and then sent off to Singapore,” said Samiran Nundy, who heads the department of gastroenterology at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital in New Delhi. “The risks of transporting her in that condition outweighed any benefits that may accrue in a hospital in another country.”

Since the incident, Indians have heatedly discussed issues concerning the treatment of women, including violence, police attitudes, safety on public transportation, clothing and even Bollywood’s gender stereotypes.

Meanwhile, another rape case has drawn widespread public attention. On Wednesday, a teenager who was raped committed suicide in the northern state of Punjab after police reportedly asked her demeaning questions when she reported the attack.

“The police refused to file a complaint. Instead, they asked my sister such vulgar details, it was as if she was being raped all over again,” the victim’s sister, Charanjit Kaur, said in a telephone interview from her village. “There was no lady police officer, they were all men. My sister cried in front of them and kept asking, ‘Would you still ask such questions if I were your daughter?’ ”

Activists say that such cases illustrate why sexual violence in India largely goes unreported. In recent years, New Delhi has earned the title of being the “rape capital” of the nation. This year, more than 560 cases have been reported. But activists say that only a small fraction of sex crimes are reported in India.

“Many families do not want to report rape because they think the woman will become a subject of social ridicule if the secret is out,” said Sunita Thakur, 45, a counselor with Jagori, a women’s rights group. “That secrecy and silence is now being broken by the public conversations on the streets about sexual violence. But a much more difficult conversation needs to take place within the families, too, about the status of women. That is where it all begins.”

Suman Nalwa, a deputy police commissioner who heads a unit in New Delhi that focuses on crimes against women, said women fear being “labeled as a morally loose” if they report rapes or sexual harassment.

“Women prefer to stay silent, ignore and look away when they face sexual violence,” she said. “They know if they speak up, nobody would support. They internalize it to such an extent that it influences their life choices about where they will go to study, where they will work and when they will go out.”

 
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