Poster reads: Stop All Violence Against Women
Poster in New Delhi protesting the country’s violence against women.

Credit: Ramesh Lalwani on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC 2.0).

(WOMENSENEWS)–As 2012 came to a close, news of the gang rape of a young woman on a bus in India’s capital generated headlines around the world. The Dec. 16 assault on her by men wielding a metal rod, and her death two weeks later from her injuries, challenged the image of modern India as a liberal aspiring superpower of confident young professionals and benign spirituality.

Instead, it focused attention on one of the dark sides of the world’s largest democracy: the struggle that many Indian women face in a country where chauvinistic and misogynistic attitudes prevail despite years of rapid economic growth.

The assault, on a woman who was putting herself through college by working shifts in a call center, laid bare a troubling dynamic: Indian women are pursuing opportunities opened up by education and the economic boom, but a deep-rooted patriarchy means society and its institutions often fail them.

The Wall Street Journal’s India bureau explored the plight of India‘s women in great detail in the past 12 months. The three stories in this book show how the social blight evident in the Delhi rape is a phenomenon across the country, in various forms. What the crimes chronicled here have in common is the failure of society in general, and government institutions in particular, to protect women in vulnerable situations. It is not primarily a question of inadequate laws but of incompetence or venality in their enforcement.

The result is a breakdown in the social compact that is fundamental to the idea of a modern democracy: the equal treatment of its citizens and the right of all individuals to protection under the law and by their government when danger threatens.

Instead, as these stories show, the world’s largest democracy is rife with lawlessness, lacks a safety net to protect its most vulnerable citizens and frequently shows a blatant disregard, punctuated with flashes of abject brutality, for half its population.

It is a fact of Indian life that is rarely delved into amid the trumpeting of India‘s economic success story or of its continued struggle to eradicate poverty. But it is a blight that, unchecked, will have just as much influence on India‘s future.

Murdered Nun

The WSJ’s reporting on these issues began with the story of a Catholic nun murdered in rural India as she tried to preserve ancient tribal ways in the face of mining expansion. In her work, Sister Valsa John Malamel faced off against villagers who wanted to reap economic benefits from local mining. She also came to the aid of a woman who had allegedly been raped but whose complaint to the police was not being taken seriously. It may have been a combination of these two separate dynamics, and the threats they posed to local men, that set the stage for a nighttime mob attack that took her life, police contend.

A few months later, the WSJ published an in-depth account of a young woman, Munni Khatoon, from rural Bihar, who was duped into moving to Delhi, where she was forced to marry or go into prostitution–and the disaster for her and her family that ensued. The plight of one of her daughters, dubbed “Baby Falak,” was national news. The WSJ offered a unique reconstruction of the broader human tragedy.

What Khatoon and her children’s ordeal revealed was an underbelly of exploitation of women in the heart of India‘s capital–and the failure of social services to identify and intervene with children at risk. India has laws that are designed to provide a safety net, even at the village level, for children in need of protection, and the social welfare minister in the family’s home state of Bihar acknowledged that little Falak’s predicament could have been prevented had those laws been effectively enforced.

But combating human trafficking is not a high priority, and, the minister added, “The general public is not even bothered about it.” Nor was it bothered about a young woman who was seeking to escape an abusive husband, the father of her kids–until after tragedy had struck.

Gang Rape Case

Less than a year after Baby Falak’s story gripped the nation, a young woman was on her way home from watching “Life of Pi” with a male friend when they boarded a bus toward her home. What happened next is the stuff of nightmares: five men and a teenager–the only other people on the bus–turned on the couple, beat them, sexually assaulted her and threw them both out, naked, on the side of a highway. The bus, its inside lights turned off and the victims’ appeals for help unheard or ignored, plied some of the capital’s major thoroughfares for almost an hour unchecked.

Later, when demonstrators took the streets to protest what had happened, and the lack of women’s safety in India in general, they were met with volleys from water cannons and charges by police wielding bamboo truncheons.

The WSJ led global coverage of the crime. It published intimate portraits of the victim and her friend, who tried to save her but couldn’t. It delved into the lives of their alleged assailants and their communities and backgrounds. And it looked more broadly at the culture of harassment that Indian women face, which sometimes flares into violent crime.

For More Information:

Buy the eBook, “Crimes Against Women: Three Tragedies and the Call for Reform in India“:

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