Nirbhaya – Fearless One: Ending Gender-Based Violence in India with Institutional and Cultural Changes



On December 16, 2012, a 23 year old physiotherapy student named Jyoti Singh Pandey went to the cinema with her friend, Awindra Pratap Pandey, in the Murika neighborhood of South Delhi. After the movie, they boarded a bus to go home. On this bus, they were attacked by five passengers and the driver. The men beat them and, with an iron bar, gang-raped Jyoti. After the assault, Jyoti and Awindra were thrown out of the bus and left on the road. The police found them hours later and rushed them to the hospital. Jyoti, unable to speak due to her injuries, wrote down what had transpired and the police arrested the perpetrators within a week. Jyoti’s injuries, however, proved fatal: the assault had caused irreparable damage to her genitals, uterus, and intestines. Jyoti succumbed to her injuries on December 29, 2012 and mass protests erupted.[1]

Vision and Motivation

News of the attack quickly spread and the media began referring to Jyoti as “Nirbhaya,” which means fearless one. The shocking brutality of the case sparked widespread outrage and triggered a “feminist revolution” in India. Jyoti became a symbol of the extreme gender-based violence women in India are subjected to.

Students protesting in Delhi after news of Nirbhaya broke in 2012. Photo: Nilanjana Roy

Protests broke out in cities across India, Sri Lanka, and Nepal, with the largest crowds gathering in New Delhi, demanding the government take steps to end gender-based violence.[2] They gathered at India Gate, Parliament of India, and Rashtrapati Bhavan, the official residence of the President of India. Students from Jawaharlal Nehru University marched silently from their campus to the site of the rape.[3] While these protests were predominantly peaceful, violence was not absent. On December 22, police used water cannons and tear gas to disperse a crowd of thousands in the center of New Delhi.[4] This did not deter protesters, who were outraged not only by the horror of the Joyti case, but by the pervasiveness of gender-based violence in India.

“The system that is supposed to protect women is not doing enough, whether it is the police or the judicial system,” said Tapas Praharaj, Secretary of the All India Democratic Women’s Association in Odisha state.[5] In 2012, over 600 rapes were reported to local authorities in New Delhi, but by the end of the year only one perpetrator had been convicted.[6] A vivid example of police neglect toward gender-based violence is the rape case of a seventeen-year-old girl in Punjab in 2012. The girl was abducted and gang-raped, but authorities failed to register the case for two weeks after it was reported, letting the perpetrators roam free. Instead, according to the victim’s sister, the police threatened her, trying to force her to withdraw the complaint. The victim committed suicide soon thereafter.[7]

Gender-based violence in India is maintained through government institutions and societal norms alike. From birth, boys are preferred over girls largely because men are seen as the future care-givers for their parents. This preference is manifested in gender-based abortions and the mistreatment of young girls, including a lack of investment in their education and health care.[8]This conception of women and girls as second-class citizens is demonstrated in societal perceptions of rape. A recent survey published in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry demonstrates that many men in India are still convinced that the victim is responsible for the rape: 58% of the male participants agreed with the myth that “When a woman says ‘no,’ she really means ‘yes.’”[9]

During the protests, activists raised awareness of these dangerous cultural norms and demanded that the police respond more effectively and seriously to sexual assault cases as well as expedite rape cases to the courts.[10] The frequency of these horrific events sparked a determination in many young activists. Not all gender-based attacks gain the same public outcry, and activists needed to utilize this energy to enact consequential institutional and cultural change in India. “There’s a movement that has been built out of this. We are going to do everything it takes to make it last,” said Ruchira Sen, a student at Jawaharlal Nehru University.[11]

History of Women’s Rights in India

The fight against sexual violence in India is a relatively recent phenomenon, even though the country has a long record of women’s activism. The 1950 Indian Constitution guaranteed equal rights and protections for women under the law, but courts rarely enforced such provisions and the women’s movement was too small to make a major impact. By the 1970s, however, a wave of social activism known as the New Women Movement (NWM), which framed women’s issues through the lens of oppression, emerged. During this time period, women’s groups, such as the National Federation of Indian Women, insisted on the creation of a commission to study women’s rights in India.

Soon the Committee on the Status of Women was formed and issued a report in 1974 that stated what many NWM activists already knew: the Indian government had permitted an environment in which women were denied equal access to healthcare, political influence, education, and employment in traditionally male fields.[12] This report was influential in bringing women’s issues to the public’s attention. However, it was not until 1972 that sexual violence became a core issue for the women’s movement.

In 1972, policemen raped a 16-year-old girl named Mathura while she was in their custody in a small village in Maharashtra. The Supreme Court decided to exonerate the rapists with the vague language that Mathura was “habituated to sex,” so she must have either consented to sex or was lying about the incident. This case angered millions of Indian women, who poured into the streets in four cities on International Women’s Day in 1980 to demand justice for Mathura. Out of these protests came the first attempt to institutionalize activism against sexual violence. Psychologist Dr. Seema Sakhare founded an NGO, Stree Atyachar Virodhi Parishad (SAVP), in order to help victims like Mathura and to push for a change in statutes surrounding sexual assault. By 1983, enough political pressure was generated that the government was forced to pass a law that made domestic violence a crime punishable by up to five years in prison without bail, closed the proceedings of rape cases to the general public (with the names of rape victims left anonymous in order to protect the victim from harassment), and shifted the legal burden of proof from the victim to the perpetrator.[13] While enforcement was, and remains, an issue, the 1983 law proved that activism could help change laws and set the stage for future action.

Another flashpoint that galvanized activists to push for reform was the Bhanwari Devi rape case of 1992. Devi was working for a government agency to end child marriage and, with the help of her husband, intervened in the marriage of a nine-month-old girl. The girl’s high caste brothers brutally attacked the couple and raped Devi. With the help of activist groups such as SAVP, Devi told her story and had the case brought to trial. The case gained extensive notoriety when Devi’s rapists were acquitted on appeal because, according to the judges, village chiefs, high caste men, and men over 60 simply could not rape. Public outrage eventually led the Supreme Court to pass the Vishakha Guidelines for government employees, which defined sexual harassment and codified how to deal with it in the workplace, setting the standard for other employers in India.[14]  Thus, while Devi was unable to get justice for herself, her case has left a framework through which others can seek justice.

As women’s rights activism grew, organizations began focusing on domestic violence, which was societally considered a personal matter that did not warrant external intervention. They lobbied for the term “domestic violence” to be introduced into the Indian civil law code, and won this battle with the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (PWDVA) of 2005. This act allowed women to seek civil damages against male relatives for violence perpetrated against them (done purposefully to lower the standard of proof necessary for conviction). The act was also unique in that it allowed NGOs to be conduits between victims and the justice system, thereby allowing victims to tell their stories in a safe space.[15] PWDVA was a landmark ruling for women’s rights in India because it demonstrated the level of political power women had attained over the previous 35 years while also showing the need for even more action to help protect women.

Since the Jyoti Singh rape case, activism against sexual harassment has dramatically increased, and it proved crucial in the sentencing of the perpetrators. To quell the protests, the government took immediate action and fast-tracked Jyoti’s case. The suspects were charged with gang rape, unnatural offense, destruction of evidence, and murder. After a long trial, four of the suspects were convicted and sentenced to death. Another perpetrator died in custody before the sentencing (likely due to suicide) and the last, a minor, was referred to the Juvenile Justice Board, which sentenced him to three years in a juvenile detention center (to the ire of many protesters). Throughout the trials, protesters could be heard chanting outside: “Hang the rapists.” According to Justice Dipak Misra, the “collective conscience” voiced by the protestors was influential in the court’s ultimate sentencing.[16]


After the initial shock, activist groups, including groups of students, protested and lobbied for the 2013 Criminal Law Amendment Act, which criminalized acid attacks and stalking/voyeurism; expanded the legal definition of rape; and, made the notorious “two-finger test” an invalid means of determining the likelihood that someone has been raped (even though it is still used in practice).[17] The recent #MeToo movement has shown that activism has not waned. After actress Mahima Kukreja accused a fellow actor of unwanted sexual advances in October 2018, a swarm of other allegations against powerful men followed, leading to, among other things, the resignation of a cabinet minister. The #MeToo movement re-opened the networks created after the Jyoti Singh case as a way to elevate the voices of those who had been abused and to call attention to the perpetrators.[18] While no concrete changes have yet resulted from the budding #MeToo movement, more progress seems all but certain.

Learn More


[1]Shubhomoy Sikdar, “Delhi Gang-Rape: Victim Narrates the Tale of Horror,” The Hindu (New Delhi, India), December 23, 2012, https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/delhi-gangrape-victim-narrates-the-tale-of-horror/article4230038.ece.

[2] Annie Banerji, “ Public fury over New Delhi gang rape sparks protest across India,” Reuters (New Delhi, India), December 21, 2012, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-india-protests/public-fury-over-new-delhi-gang-rape-sparks-protest-across-india-id USBRE8BK0R620121221.

[3] Heather Timmons and Sruthi Gottipati, “Indian Women March: ‘That Girl Could Have Been Any One of Us,’” The New York Times (New Delhi, India), Dec. 30, 2012, https://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/31/world/asia/rape-incites-women-to-fight-culture- in-india.html.

[4] Gardiner Harris and Hari Kumar, “Clashes Break Out in India at a Protest Over a Rape Case,” The New York Times (New Delhi, India), December 22, 2012, https://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/23/world/asia/in-india-demonstrators-and-police-clash-at-protest- over-rape.html

[5] Banerji, “Public fury over New Delhi gang rape sparks protest across India.”

[6] Timmons and Gottipati, “Indian Women March: ‘That Girl Could Have Been Any One of Us.’”

[7] “Punjab’s shame: Minor kill self over gang rape,” The Times of India (Patiala, Punjab, India), December 27, 2012, https://times ofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Punjabs-shame-Minor-kill-self-over-gang-rape/articleshow/17789181.cms.

[8]Smriti Sharma, “Achieving Gender Equality in India: What Works, and What Doesn’t,” The Conversation, December 1, 2016, https://unu.edu/publications/articles/achieving-gender-equality-in-india-what-works-and-what-doesnt.html.

[9]Zeel N. Kamdar, Jayendrakumar K. Kosambiya, Bansari L. Chawada, Mamtarani Verma, and Abhinav Kadia, “Rape: Is it a lifestyle or behavioral problem?,” Indian Journal of Psychiatry 59, No. 1 (2017): 77-82.

[10]Timmons and Gottipati, “Indian Women March: ‘That Girl Could Have Been Any One of Us.’”


[12]Kaamila Patherya, “Domestic Violence and the Indian Women’s Movement: A Short History,” Inquiries Journal 9, No. 11 (2017): 1-11, http://www.inquiriesjournal.com/articles/1702/domestic-violence-and-the-indian-womens-movement-a-short- history.

[13]Moni Basu, “The Girl Whose Rape Change a Country,” CNN (Desaiganj, Maharashtra, India), Nov. 2013, http://www.cnn.com/ interactive/2013/11/world/india-rape/.

[14]Geeta Pandey, “Bhanwari Devi: The Rape that Led to India’s Sexual Harassment Law,” BBC News (Jaipur, Rajasthan, India), March 17, 2017, ttps://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-39265653.

[15]Patherya, “Domestic Violence and the Indian Women’s Movement:” 1-11.

[16]Ellen Barry, “In Rare Move, Death Sentence in Indian Gange Rape Case is Upheld,” New York Times (New Delhi, India), May 5, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/05/world/asia/death-sentence-delhi-gang-rape.html.

[17]Gethin Chamberlain and Soudhriti Bhabani, “Five Years after the Gang-Rape and Murder of Jyoti Singh, What has Changed for Women in India?,” The Guardian (New Delhi, India), December 3, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/dec/03/ five-years-after-gang-murder-jyoti-singh-how-has-delhi-changed.

[18]Jen Kirby, “The Rise of #MeToo in India,” Vox (New Delhi, India), October 24, 2018, https://www.vox.com/2018/10/24/179896 50/me-too-india-akbar

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