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A deadly gang rape in India: Could a tragedy inspire positive change?
Protesters demand tougher rape laws and greater respect for women's rights in the wake of a shockingly cruel crime
Indian women offer prayers for a gang rape victim during a memorial service on Jan. 2 in New Delhi.
Indian women offer prayers for a gang rape victim during a memorial service on Jan. 2 in New Delhi. AP Photo/ Dar Yasin
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he death this weekend of a 23-year-old woman who was gang-raped and tortured in a Dec. 16 attack on a bus has ignited protests and outrage across India. Thousands of demonstrators joined a march in New Delhi — the capital, where the attack occurred — calling for tougher sexual-assault laws and greater respect for the rights of women in India. The country's junior education minister, Shashi Tharoor, urged authorities to release the name of the victim, a medical student, so that a new anti-rape law could be named in her honor. Six suspects have been arrested, and five of them are expected to be charged with murder on Thursday. The government promptly inaugurated a fast-track court to make crimes against women a priority, and eliminate a backlog of un-tried rape cases.

People across India mourned the unnamed woman as her ashes were scattered on Tuesday. She survived her injuries for nearly two weeks after being sexually assaulted for nearly an hour when she boarded a bus with a male friend to head home from a movie. Both were beaten with iron bars before being thrown from the moving bus. This "savage rape" has at last shined a spotlight on how badly India treats its women, says Soutik Biswas at the BBC. This is a country where "female fetuses are aborted and baby girls killed after birth, leading to an appallingly skewed sex ratio." Many of those who survive face threats to their well-being — from violence to discrimination to neglect and inadequate health care — throughout their lives.

Angry citizens believe that politicians, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, are being disingenuous when they promise to toughen laws and speed up the prosecution of rapists and perpetrators of crime against women... How, they say, can politicians be believed when there are six elected state legislators who have charges of rape against them?

But the renewed protests in Delhi after the woman's death hold out some hope. Has her death come as an inflexion point in India's history, which will force the government to enact tougher laws and people to begin seriously thinking about the neglect of women? It's early days yet, but one hopes these are the first stirrings of change.

India can impose strict laws against sexual violence, says India's Hindustan Times in an editorial. But even if the country convicts and locks up every rapist it catches, women will remain second-class citizens until the population's mindset changes. In a survey held after this brutal attack, 92 percent of men between the ages of 18 and 25 said they or their friends have made passes at women in public places. Over 78 percent of women said that they had been sexually harassed in the past year. Even more frightening: More than half of the men said the "harassment happens, now hold your breath, because of the way women dress and behave."

If India wants to end violence against women, only better laws and policing will not do; the mindset of society has to be overhauled completely. Otherwise, as a columnist in The Guardian correctly mentioned, India's much-vaunted modernity is nothing without equality for women.

India isn't the only country that has to change, says Jennifer Norris at The Christian Science Monitor. This heartbreaking, brutal crime "should remind the United States why it's high time to ratify the United Nations 'bill of rights' for women." The U.S. has been a global leader on women's rights, but it's one of just eight countries that have "failed to ratify the seminal treaty on such rights — officially titled the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women."

U.S. diplomats and Americans who work in international organizations say that the failure to ratify impedes Washington's efforts to advance the rights of girls and women abroad. "Don't lecture us. Your country hasn't even ratified" the treaty, is a common response...

It is time to reassess the idea that the U.S. is beyond reproach on its women's rights record. America must send a message to the world that, in solidarity with others, it will legally commit to honor universally held principles of women's equality at home and abroad.

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