India executed four men convicted in a brutal 2012 rape and murder case early Friday, closing a painful chapter in the country's history but raising difficult questions about how far the nation has progressed in tackling violence against women.

Dozens gathered outside the Delhi jail where the hangings took place even as the country has asked citizens to remain indoors because of the coronavirus pandemic. The executions marked the first use of capital punishment in India in five years.

“Today, the women of this country have got justice,” Asha Devi, the victim’s mother, told reporters after the hanging.

For many women in India’s capital, the memory of the December night when the crime took place is vivid. Maitri Deb had just finished eating dinner with her family when the news came on the television: A young woman — in her 20s, just like Deb — had been viciously raped and her body dumped on the side of a road in south Delhi.

“Something broke inside me,” said Deb, now 33. She went to a protest for the first time in her life, part of a surge of anger against sexual violence in India. But in the following years, Deb’s hopes for change faded.

In the wake of the fatal rape, India ushered in landmark legal reforms. Lawmakers expanded the definition of rape to include oral sex and the insertion of any object into a woman’s vagina. Stalking and voyeurism became criminal offenses. Jail terms were increased for sexual crimes, and the death penalty was introduced in some cases. Fast-track courts were set up to expedite trials that often took years.

Yet gruesome rapes continue to take place. The number of reported rapes has risen nearly every year since 2012. In 2018, the most recent year for which data was available, 33,356 rapes were reported, or one every 15 minutes.

Experts say it is not clear whether the increase is because of a higher incidence of such crimes or better reporting — or both. The vast majority of such attacks in India remain unreported, they say. (In the United States, about 101,000 rapes were reported in 2018.)

Meanwhile, the fast-track courts have failed to deliver. Nearly half of Indian states hadn’t even set up such tribunals as of December. Interviews with lawyers and prosecutors indicate that where they do exist, their impact has been limited.

“I didn’t feel safe then, and I don’t feel safe now,” said Neha Chabbra, a 32-year-old living in Delhi. “I’m a married woman with a 5-year-old daughter. Now, I worry about her.”

Women’s rights activists and lawyers in India warn that harsher punishments, like the death penalty, may do little to stem the tide of sexual crimes against women. They also point to a damning statistic: Nearly 94 percent of reported rape cases in India are by people known to the victim, not stranger rape like the 2012 Delhi case. 

“Things haven’t progressed the way they should have,” said Kalpana Sharma, an Indian journalist who has covered gender violence for three decades and recently published a book on the topic. “The mind-set hasn’t changed — women are not your property.”

Kamla Bhasin, a Delhi-based feminist activist, said the focus should be on preventive measures instead of punishment. “They are all coming from our homes,” she said.

The 2012 rape that spurred India into action stood out for its grisly nature.

On a cold December night, Jyoti Singh, known in India as "Nirbhaya" or "fearless," and a male friend, boarded a private bus on their way home after watching a movie.

Six men were on board, drunk and cruising the city. They beat Singh’s male friend and dragged her to the back of the bus. The men took turns raping her and one ruptured her intestines with a metal rod. Then they dumped her by the roadside. Two weeks later, Singh died at a hospital in Singapore where she had been flown for treatment.

The next year, four of the accused were sentenced to death after a nine-month trial. (One juvenile accused was tried separately, and the sixth accused committed suicide in jail). The judge wrote that the crime had “shocked the collective conscience” and deserved “exemplary punishment.”

It took more than six years for various appeals to wind their way through the system. The convicts’ lawyers argued that all possible legal challenges should be exhausted, but Singh’s parents decried what they call delaying tactics.

The executions of the four men — Akshay Thakur, Pawan Gupta, Vinay Sharma and Mukesh Singh — have also reignited a debate over whether capital punishment deters such crimes. The hangings are the first in a rape-and-murder case since 2004.

Last year, the Indian government also instituted the death penalty for those convicted of raping children under the age of 12.

An analysis of murder rates for three decades in the United States by the Death Penalty Information Center found no evidence of a deterrent effect of the death penalty on the incidence of murders. Researchers who did a comparative study of murder rates in Hong Kong, which abolished the death penalty, and Singapore, where murderers are sentenced to death, found little difference in homicide trends.

But despair that not enough has changed in India has fueled a thirst for revenge. In December, after the gruesome rape and murder of a veterinarian in the city of Hyderabad in south India, many celebrated after the four suspects were shot and killed in police custody. Activists decried the shootings as a case of extrajudicial killings, but city residents showered police officers with rose petals and fed them sweets.

Nishtha Das, 24, works at a publisher in Delhi and said that safety remains a constant worry. “I have to notify people that I am going here, going there,” she said, and reassure them that she has arrived at her destination. “I would feel safer if laws were more strict and action was more swift.”

For many women in Delhi, the 2012 rape and murder was a moment that still circumscribes their lives. Garima Pradhan, 31, a video editor, said she stopped traveling by bus after the crime and prefers to be home by 8 p.m. Even now, she said, “there is always a sense of fear and a feeling of helplessness.”

Tania Dutta contributed to this report.