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Beyond rape trial, a bigger question about women's status in India

Court proceedings began today for five of the men accused in the deadly gang rape of a young woman in Delhi that led to her recent death. 

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"There is a line between men and women, and it should be respected like the India-Pakistan border," she said.

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Such attitudes also pervade the police and judiciary. In a society in which virginity is regarded as a serious matter of morality, the sexual history of a rape victim can influence how her case is handled – from whether it will be registered at all to the severity of punishment meted out to the rapist.

Explanations that pit modernity against tradition are only one part of the picture. India also has matrilineal traditions that were erased by colonialism, notes women's activist Madhu Kishwar. Northeastern states and tribal populations with that legacy have better sex ratios.

Ms. Kishwar blames increased violence against women on "dysfunctional government machinery" and a general uptick in crime. Whenever there is more violence, women suffer, she says.

Most rapes occur in rural areas, in keeping with population distribution, and in the context of broader caste violence.

A recent legal amendment in the state of Madhya Pradesh penalizes any attempt to strip a woman in public, a "humiliating form of sexual violence [that] is routinely inflicted, particularly on women belonging to disadvantaged groups or transgressing social norms," says women's rights lawyer Kamayani Bali Mahabal.

Part of a broader picture

Gender inequality is part of broader inequalities "in caste, class, religion," notes Nanda.

Uneven job growth, for instance, helps explain India's dismal female labor force participation rate, which has declined in recent years and is among the lowest in South Asia.

Indian women tend to stay at home as incomes rise, partly because of social factors but also because of a lack of appropriate jobs, says Sonalde Desai, a senior fellow at the National Council of Applied Economic Research in New Delhi.

That's why their absence is greatest in the middle stage of the income scale, especially in rural areas.

"[O]nce women have enough education to want to do something besides farm labor but don't have enough education to hold an office job, they have very few opportunities," Dr. Desai says.

The 23-year-old student who was raped skipped that middle stage by training to become a physiotherapist, and might have eventually joined India's new middle classes.

Instead, she died 12 days after an assault on a moving bus in the nation's capital, following an evening out watching a Hollywood movie with a friend. Her story now seems like another emblem of the apparent contradictions of modern India.

"There is a superficial impression of change in India," Mr. Dreze says. "[B]ut for the vast majority of Indian women, it's more of the same." In recent years, he and Mr. Sen have argued that India has focused too narrowly on economic growth and not enough on social progress.

They have pointed to the example of Bangladesh, a much poorer country that has overtaken India in life expectancy, fertility rates, and female literacy rates – in part, Sen emphasized recently, because of its strong efforts to improve gender equality.

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