The tragic case of the Indian student who died after being gang-raped in Delhi has left a nation outraged; but from this horrific attack, a spotlight has been thrown onto women's rights that could herald a new dawn for the country.

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A group of Indians hold a vigil for the gang rape victim. (image: ramesh_lalwani/Flickr)

In New Delhi, the capital of India, a rape case is reported to the authorities every 18 hours on average, according to figures released by the state police. The city, which is home to 17 million people, has been dubbed the “rape capital” of India, an ironic tag considering the numerous accolades New Delhi has garnered over the years; National Geographic’s Traveler magazine describes New Delhi “as one of the Ultimate Cities of a Lifetime to visit and explore”.

On 16 December, a 23-year-old physiotherapy student became part of the sobering statistic when she was set upon by six men on a moving bus and viciously gang raped. The attack was so incredibly savage that some of her internal organs were damaged beyond repair and had to be removed by the medical staff who attended to her. Unfortunately, the victim, who was later moved to Mount Elizabeth Hospital, succumbed to her injuries and passed away just before sunrise on Saturday, 29 December at 4.45am (Singapore time). Dr Kelvin Loh, the chief executive of Mount Elizabeth, said the student died “peacefully” and paid homage to her bravery and fortitude to survive and live. “She was courageous in fighting for her life for so long against the odds, but the trauma to her body was too severe for her to overcome,” Loh said in a statement.

This rape attack has thrown an intense spotlight on India’s deep-rooted prejudices against women. Baby boys are prized, so many families practise infanticide when they find out that a member of the family is carrying a female foetus; activists estimate that eight million foetuses were aborted in the last decade alone. Even though it is illegal to abort a child because of the gender, these abortions do occur, aided by illegal clinics throughout the country. When female children do grow up and go on to become a member of India’s strongly patriarchal society, they often have to deal with sexual discrimination, prejudice, violence and neglect. In fact, India has been ranked as the worst G20 country in the world to be a woman.

Unfortunately, much as it is painful to read, rape is one of the realities that many Indian women have to grapple with on a daily basis. And this rape culture is deeply entrenched in the society. Victims of rape rarely go to the police because of the police’s insensitivity and ponderosity when dealing with crimes against women. In certain parts of India, women are even married off to the men who raped them. Even if the case is finally filed, the perpetrators of the crime regularly get away scot-free, which explains the shockingly large number of rapes that happen in India.

However, there is light at the end of the tunnel. The savage rape and subsequent death of the physiotherapy student, nicknamed Damini, which means “lightning” in Hindi, has triggered waves of protests and rallies in New Delhi, not just to seek justice for Damini but to demand change in the ways the Indian society treats its women. Protestors from different castes and backgrounds were unified in one single voice to speak out against the misogynistic attitudes that run rampant in the civil service and the government.

Already, the government of India is taking steps to get to the root of the problem, setting up a commission to look into the rape and to suggest measures to improve women’s safety. Ultimately, the goal is to change, as a whole, the attitude of the Indian society towards women. As Ratna Kapur, professor at Jindal Global Law School, explains, Indian parents need to take responsibility. “We need to think about how we can handle women’s equality in ways that are not perceived as threatening. [Parents should not] raise sons in a way in which they are indoctrinated with a sense of superiority and privilege. There is also a need…for young men to be actively involved in their schools and communities in advocating women’s equality rights,” she said.

Kapur’s hope is slowly coming true. Refreshingly, large numbers of young Indian men have joined the rallies and protests, which bode well for the country’s future. Also, part of the tragedy of the death – the fact that Damini’s studies were funded in part by her family selling their land so that she could attend medical school – is also, socially speaking, an indicator of changing attitudes towards the importance of educating females, who are generally less likely than males to receive such unwavering support.

As the Arab Spring revolution has demonstrated, a large group of citizens who come together with one objective is a powerful force that cannot be ignored. India is now at a significant and defining moment in her history. And if this case finally galvanises the world’s largest democracy to slowly correct its attitude towards women, then perhaps Damini’s death has not been in vain.