30 days that bound a nation - in shame and concern (One month after Dec 16 gang-rape)

New Delhi, Jan 15 (IANS) She was the faceless woman who bound a nation in concern and shame and made India a talking point across the world. A month after a young physiotherapy intern was gang-raped in the Indian capital and 18 days after she died of her injuries, the spotlight stays resolutely on India's women and their status.

It was on the night of Dec 16 that the 23-year-old and her male friend got on to a bus in Delhi's usually busy Munirka neighbourhood after watching a movie. After assaulting her for what seemed like hours, she was left battered and bleeding on the roadside with her friend, both stripped off their clothes. On Dec 29, she died in a Singapore hospital where she was taken for specialised treatment.

The incident touched a historic chord - one that still resonates. And the discussion has covered the entire spectrum - from the reasons for aggravated sexual assault and public response to issues of patriarchy and the law.

And in what many women hope will be the turning point in the fight for their rights, the horror of what happened to the young woman continues to occupy mindspace, debated endlessly in colleges and coffee shops, homes and offices.

In an unprecedented development, the story hasn't moved from the front pages and protests still continue, not just in Delhi but elsewhere in the country. Seldom before have Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi spoken out on the need to improve safety for all of India's women.

The safety of women in public spaces is the one issue that concerns every Indian family - from the richest, whose daughters and wives go clubbing, to the poorest, whose women go out to work.

It was also the one incident that put India on the front pages of the world's newspapers, putting an unwelcome spotlight on the country's patriarchal and feudal traditions, sitting uneasily with the India-on-the-move image.

The central government and those in the states, particularly Delhi, have indeed moved to stave off some of the criticism.

Two committees were set up, the Delhi government set up a helpline and put more police on the roads. Activists promised that the movement for change would not be allowed to fizzle out.

The young intern's death, for which five men and a juvenile were quickly arrested, should not be in vain. Sensitisation has to be a continuum. Discussion on the way forward must continue.

As leading lawyer Vrinda Grover put it, this cannot be a one-off case.

"The case should not be looked at in isolation... it should become the benchmark of how rape cases should be handled," Grover told IANS.

"And we should ask the government on the 16th of every month for a report card on the progress made on reform, on what they have done so far," she added.

A month after the incident that shook the nation's collective conscience, Kavita Krishnan of the All India Progressive Women's Association said: "No, we will not let the movement peter out."

One positive change that she noticed among many of the male protesters, Krishnan said, was their coming to terms with their "discomfort" of thinking of women as equals.

The protests, she said, had spurred a major movement among participants to set up anti-sexual harassment committees in their offices and colleges.

Vikas Sharma, a young protester, said: "The movement will never end till we have achieved our goal - till the anti-rape laws and anti-sexual harassment laws are made more stringent."

He is a sales executive who said he manages to be present at Jantar Mantar, the 18th century observatory that became the epicentre of the protests.

The anger has been sustained. And it must continue to be so, many thousand Indians have resolved.

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