Sexual violence in India: Women see little progress

India’s problem with sexual violence shot back into the headlines this month when the documentary India’s Daughter reopened a national wound. CBC news spoke to women in New Delhi about their perceptions of what needs to change.

Documentary India's Daughter has sparked new debate about how rape is viewed, dealt with in India

Inside India's gender revolution

8 years ago
Duration 14:20
Nahlah Ayed visits the front lines of India's gender revolution.

India’s problem with sexual violence shot back into the headlines this month when the documentary India’s Daughter reopened a national wound.

India's Daughter delves into the mind of one of the rapists involved in the December 2012 gang rape and murder of a young woman on a New Delhi city bus.

That crime represented a turning point in how rape is viewed and dealt with in India. Now, two years later, the documentary has sparked renewed debate. 

Many wonder how much progress has really been made.

CBC news spoke to women in New Delhi about their experiences with violence, and their perceptions of what is and isn’t changing.

Dipti Shankar, self-defence trainer

Dipti Shankar, 34, traded a career in fashion for one in self-defence training after her experiences with men. (Tracy Seeley/CBC News)
When she was growing up, Dipti Shankar often wished she was born a boy.   

"Why did I grow up in a place like India," she would ask herself, "where every single day somebody looks at you, someone makes a lewd remark?" 

Lewd remarks weren’t the worst of Shankar’s experiences with men.

The experiences compelled her to learn how to protect herself. She took a course in self defence, and soon quit her career as a fashion designer and threw herself full-time into training, even travelling to Israel to learn from the Israeli Defence Force. 

Five years later, she is training thousands of women and girls across India. 

Shankar sees big changes happening with women in her country. She is less optimistic about men.

"To be very honest, the men in India still remain the same," Shankar says. "There’s not much change in the way they look at women. And probably the way women are getting empowered and the way they are growing up, they are feeling more threatened." 

Whose job is it to fix that? As the mother of two sons, she believes it’s ultimately up to women to change how men treat them.

"If I can bring up my two sons in a way that they grow up to be defenders and not the molesters or betrayers, you know, I feel I’ve done my bit for society," Shankar says.

"And if every woman does that, India will be a better place to live in."

Shanti, taxi driver

Shanti, 33, is a single mother and one of the top drivers at the women-only taxi company Sakha Consulting Wings. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC News)
Shanti gets constant stares as she deftly steers her taxi through the chaotic streets of New Delhi. Women taxi drivers were virtually unheard of in India until Shanti's employer, Sakha Consulting Wings, decided to create a taxi company driven exclusively by women for women.

Shanti, who prefers only her first name be used, started earning her living behind the wheel when she was still living with her abusive husband. Sakha not only trained her to drive, but also taught her about her rights and how to stand up for herself. 

The company’s purpose is to teach life skills to vulnerable women, as well as training them to drive professionally. 

Shanti's husband objected to her new career, but she didn’t let that sway her.   

"I started speaking up against him," she says. 

Soon, he left her to raise her three daughters alone with no child support.

"I’m better off now, more independent," she says. 

Not only does Shanti deliver women customers safely to where they’re going, but she can enjoy the security and freedom that being in a car brings. Gone are the days of waiting hours for the city buses, which are high-risk spots for rape in New Delhi.

She knows she is in some ways one of the fortunate ones.

"Women are not yet equal in India," she says, "but they are challenging men at several skills."

Shanti clearly doesn’t mind the curious looks every time she pulls up to a red light.

"I feel proud," she says.

Her job has given her an identity, and she likes that it is recognizable to all.

Yogita Chakraborty, social activist

Yogita Chakraborty, 35, is a social activist dedicated to helping victims of rape and their families. (Richard Devey/CBC News)
​Yogita Chakraborty was one of thousands of women who charged out onto the streets to protest two years ago after the fatal gang rape of a young woman on a New Delhi city bus. 

Chakraborty, like so many in India, thought the public pressure that followed that crime would make a real difference to the rape problem in the country.

"Definitely I feel sad and I really feel furious. We really thought things would change because everyone was on the street. But nothing has changed after that."

One thing did change in her own life, however. Chakraborty decided she wanted to dedicate herself to helping rape victims.

As an activist, she works with victims of rape and their families as they’re going through the painfully slow process of seeking justice in India.

She welcomes how rape cases are now directed to new "fast-track" courts, but says the legal system still needs to be fixed.   

"Fast-track courts are very, very slow in India," she says. 

Chakraborty’s latest efforts to make progress have been directed at tackling jurisdictional squabbling. Last week she helped bring together forensics specialists, police, women’s activists and even judges in an effort to get them talking instead of blaming each other for the problems that still exist in India.

Is she hopeful for the future?

"I’m not, because we have been betrayed many times. But still, we need to be positive to achieve something. Let’s see how it goes. Otherwise we will protest again."

The Passionate Eye will re-broadcast the documentary India's Daughter on CBC News Network this Saturday, March 14, at 10 pm ET/PT.