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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. 

By Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar and Shivam VijCorrespondents / January 24, 2013

Women travel in the women’s compartment of a train in the early morning in Mumbai. The rape of a woman on a bus resulted in a firestorm of protests.

Rafiq Maqbool/AP

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Mumbai and New Delhi

In a slum colony in one corner of Delhi, a heated debate is taking place near the home of Vinay Sharma, one of the six accused in the rape of a 23-year-old student last month that shook the capital and prompted a national discussion. Court proceedings in the case opened today.

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The women of Ravi Das Camp gathered to listen to Mr. Sharma's mother defending her son to a reporter but were soon arguing over whom to blame for sexual violence.

"Have you seen how women in Delhi wear short skirts and sit so tight with their boyfriends on motorcycles as though they are going to devour them?" asks one woman, adding, "Men will be men; women should know how not to attract attention."

A high school girl in jeans disagrees. "Why should boys have all the freedom?" she asks. A middle-aged woman, dressed in a sari, supports her. "Nobody rapes a man who comes home at 2 a.m.," she says.

"That is how it is," someone else replies. "Even if a woman becomes a top bureaucrat in our society she is still seen as a woman."

The Delhi gang rape, and the consequent flood of reports on rampant sexual harassment and violence in India, has brought global attention to an issue that has been largely overshadowed by the country's "growth story": Despite prominent female leaders and important strides in education, many Indian women continue to face discrimination and violence daily, especially if they are from marginal communities.

Crimes against women are high, illegal child marriage and payment of dowries persist, and some gender gaps are widening.

The World Economic Forum ranked India 105 on the Gender Gap Index in 2012, up from the year before, but below its 2006 ranking, and far below countries like Ghana and Bangladesh. It scored highest on political empowerment and lowest in women's health and survival.

There is "great resilience in the basic features of gender inequality in India," says well-known development economist Jean Dreze, "in contrast with many other countries – including Bangladesh – where there are significant signs of social change."

The challenges faced by Indian women reflect broader contradictions: Two decades of economic growth and globalization have brought improved opportunities but also greater inequality. That paradox was captured in a July survey that ranked India as the worst place to be a woman among the Group of 20 countries that make up the world's biggest economies, based on parameters like health services, threat of violence, and property rights.

Slight gains, stronger inequalities

Ravi Das Camp, where four of the men accused of the gang rape lived, is not unlike the victim's neighborhood in the opposite corner of New Delhi.

Both are full of poor families reaching for a better life, including through the education of their daughters. Sharma worked in a gym and waited tables to help his father, a balloon seller, put his two younger sisters through school.

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