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India: A Dangerous Place to Be a Woman

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Last December, India witnessed an unprecedented case of 23-year old Jyoti, fatally gang raped by six men in the capital, New Delhi, after a night out at the cinema with a male friend. The harrowing details of Jyoti's ordeal were every girl's worst nightmare and her death sent shock waves around the world. But six months on - has anything really changed for the women in India?

Her brutal case sparked uproar in India and to every corner of the world, with everyone outraged against her rape. Six men were arrested and a new fast track court was immediately set up for the trial. Mass demonstrations galvanized people across India, with calls for tougher rape laws and for the suspects in the case to be hanged. Since the arrests, one of the accused committed suicide and now five remain on trial for her rape and murder.

In December, when the world came to know of the Delhi rape case like so many, I was also moved by this horrific event. As a British Indian and journalist, I have a close interest in untold stories from my ancestral homeland, India. Being from the UK I had always thought it was us, the foreigners, the back packers that were subjected to such sexual abuse - not the women and average ladhki (girl) in a demure salwar kameez (traditional dress) living in India. I was naive in my thinking and was shocked in what I was seeing and hearing across the Indian media. I tracked the story like a hawk, the more I read and watched, I realised sexual harassment against women was a much bigger problem facing Indian women than I had anticipated. I was discovering and learning more about the reasons and attitudes behind why so many of my fellow country women and girls have to fend off unwanted sexual advances and lewd comments. I knew this was a strong story and I had to tell it.

Delhi has the highest number of reported rapes in the country (National Crime Records Bureau) and is considered India's most dangerous city for women. Women are everywhere in this sprawling metropolis and all too often squeezed on the bus to work, stroked by a hand brushing along their breast, touched and groped at overcrowded markets, receiving leering stares from the side of the road as they walk by. Sexual harassment and molestation known nationally as "eve-teasing" is not unique to Delhi or India for that matter. But in a country where tradition and modernity are at logger heads, women are constantly protecting their bodies and defending their safety.

On my journey to India for BBC Three, I met many young girls and women who had been a victim of mild to extreme sexual harassment but it was meeting Jyoti's family that was perhaps the most difficult. Arriving at her family's home, barely two small concrete rooms with white-washed walls, I've never seen pain like I did on her family's face. Her mother was mute, could not utter a word. She just pointed to her daughter's picture on top of a wooden bench. Her father, Badri Nath a dignified yet a broken man, showed me her university Physiotherapy results. He told me her dream was to become a doctor. Jyoti wanted to improve her family's standard of living, lift them out of poverty and give them a brighter future, a common aspiration for many young people in India today.

I sat on the side of the bed with her father and we talked about his beloved daughter. Aside from what happened on that terrible night, I wanted to know more about who Jyoti was and what she was like. He told me Jyoti was the life and soul of their family. In Hindi there's a well-known phrase that a daughter is a goddess of the home - 'Ghar ki Lakshmi.' Nothing can repair the damage done to this family, their pain will not fade. But one thing will help their minds rest and that is justice for Jyoti. The trial is still on-going but there has been a public outcry to see the men responsible hanged, a wish shared by the family.

He told me that a few days before she had slipped into unconsciousness, that the biggest grief for him, as a father, is that he didn't get a chance to share his deepest heartfelt feelings with Jyoti nor hear from her how she felt. It was in hospital, he remembers resting his hand on her head and Jyoti kissing his hand back.

Since the Delhi rape case, it's been a turbulent and volatile time as the world's largest democracy has found itself splashed across global news for its sometimes brutal but always pervasive sexual harassment of women. We've read more about it and seen more in the media. But rape and other sexual harassment against women have happened long before Jyoti's case. So why has this caused such uproar? I realized there were many factors that made this case a clear tipping point. Men and women across India had spoken up and protested against what has been quietly tolerated and accepted for too long. They had openly criticized a patriarchal system that has traditionally blamed women for the shame and abuse of sexual attacks.

So what is Jyoti's legacy? I've seen small improvements. I visited a new emergency helpline for women in Delhi and gender training for police. I've seen the women helpdesks at police stations and fast track courts specially set up for crimes against women. Her death prompted a change in law with tougher sentences for rapists. Small changes will hopefully lead to big significant ones, but that doesn't mean crimes against women will stop. It all boils down to the mind-set. It's clear to me India, is going through a seismic change. Indian women want respect, autonomy, and to be valued. Core values which I take for granted living in the West. They don't want to be the superior gender, they want equality. And India is responding, albeit slowly. You have to be optimistic, you have to be hopeful and the small signs I've seen are encouraging, but yes much more can be done. It all boils down to mindset. Attitudes towards women have to change, sons and daughters need to be raised as equals. Only then can the women of India have a better tomorrow.

India: A Dangerous Place to be a Woman, is on BBC Three Thursday 27th June at 9pm.

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