NEW DELHI – The phones were ringing nonstop in the tiny, windowless office in downtown New Delhi, with urgent appeals from desperate women.
One caller, speaking in whispers, said her husband beat her regularly because she failed to bring in enough dowry. Another woman said her teenage daughter was being stalked by a neighbour and needed legal advice.
Established in the wake of last year’s gang rape and murder of a young New Delhi woman, the government hotline is part of a wave of change since the case forced the country to confront its appalling treatment of women.
The victim, a 23-year-old physiotherapy student, was heading home with a male friend after an evening showing of the movie “Life of Pi” when six men lured them onto a private bus. With no one else in sight, they beat the man with a metal bar, raped the woman and used the bar to inflict massive internal injuries.
The pair were dumped naked on the roadside, and the woman died two weeks later.
Indian media named her “Nirbhaya,” or “fearless,” as rape victims cannot be identified under Indian law. She became a rallying cry for tens of thousands protesting the treatment of women.
New laws have made stalking, voyeurism and sexual harassment a crime. There is now a fast-track court for rape cases. In some ways, the case cracked a cultural taboo surrounding discussion of sexual violence in a country where rape is often viewed as a woman’s personal shame to bear.
But for so many women in India’s urban centres like New Delhi and Mumbai, the new laws have not made the streets any safer. And in such a conservative country with patriarchal traditions, it will take more than a year to erode generations of devastating sexism.
“Out on the streets, I find men staring at me, passing lewd comments,” said Barnali Barman, a 23-year-old business executive in New Delhi. “I find people following me as I get down from the train and walk to my office.”
Nirbhaya’s father told The Associated Press he takes comfort in the changes his daughter’s suffering have brought.
But, he said, “not a day passes when we don’t shed tears.”
“Our tears are not for her death, but for what she suffered,” he said in an interview from the family’s three-room apartment in the outer suburbs of New Delhi.
“We just can’t forget how she suffered at the hands of these men,” he added, his voice thickening. On the wall hung a faded piece of cloth – an award for bravery given posthumously to his daughter.
His wife, a pale shadow, backs out of the room at any mention of her daughter.
The assailants were tried relatively quickly in a country where sexual assault cases often languish for years. Four defendants were sentenced to death. Another hanged himself in prison, though his family insists he was killed. And an 18-year-old who was a juvenile at the time of the attack was sentenced to three years in a reform home.
In India, the arrival of a daughter is a tragic event in many families. Illegal sex-selective abortions over decades have left the country with a ratio of 914 girls under age 6 for every 1,000 boys. Girls get less medical care and less education.
Still, in the last two decades as the Indian economy boomed, rising education levels and inflation have led to larger numbers of women joining the work force. But the deep-rooted social attitudes toward women have remained largely unchanged.
The result is that women’s complaints of rape and sexual abuse remain drastically underreported. Families often do not make a police complaint to avoid the stigma that befalls the victim and her family.
“The criminals know that the Indian police and courts will take 10 years or more to prosecute them,” said Tanpreet Singh, a 26-year-old New Delhi businessman. “The system is corrupt and many succeed in bribing their way out.”
For all the attention given to Nirbhaya’s case, daily indignities and abuse continue unabated for many women, particularly the poor.
“Indian society has to change its mindset about women,” said Chaitali, a field worker with Jagori, a women’s rights group, who goes by one name. “That is something that will take more than a year. If we are lucky it will take a couple of generations.”
The women’s hotline aims to speed things up. On a recent evening, six women wearing headsets sat at computer terminals, speaking in gentle tones to agitated callers.
“Most of the calls are from women who are suffering some kind of abuse – sexual harassment, domestic violence, stalking, or obscene phone calls,” said Khadijah Faruqui, a veteran women’s rights activist who heads the helpline project.
In cases of domestic violence, or where there is imminent danger to the caller’s life, the helpline informs the police, or women’s groups nearby, so that they can reach the scene and intervene. The helpline also offers legal advice and follow-up calls.
In a little less than a year, the helpline has handled more than half a million distress calls from women in trouble, Faruqui said.
Activists say one outcome of the public debate is that women are coming forward to register complaints against sexual abuse.
There has been a surge in the number of rapes being reported: Between January and October this year, there have been 1,330 rapes reported in Delhi and its suburbs, compared with the 706 for the whole of 2012, according to government figures.
Several recent, high-profile cases also suggest women feel more comfortable going public with reports of sexual assaults – an important breakthrough in a country where men feel emboldened to commit crimes because they know women face the stigma.
Last month, the high-profile editor of an Indian magazine known for exposing abuses of power was arrested after a young female colleague accused him of sexually assaulting her in a hotel elevator during a conference.
The allegations against Tehelka Editor Tarun Tejpal have touched a nerve in part because he is the face of a publication that has pushed Indian society to vanquish corruption and confront the scourge of sexual violence.
Women’s rights also took on unprecedented significance in India’s state elections last week, with the three main parties adopting a “womanifesto” – a list of six priority actions to protect the freedom and safety of women in the capital.
“Today, every political party is promising safety and security as the first commitment to women in the country,” said Ranjana Kumari, a women’s rights activist with New Delhi’s Centre for Social Research. “This was something which they never thought was necessary.”
Kumari said there are glimmers of hope as women become aware that they no longer have to put up with sexual harassment.
“Instead of a fearful silence,” she said, “there is an openness without the inhibitions of social shame.”
Associated Press writer Ashok Sharma contributed to this report.