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India Gang Rape: Why Was Everyone So Slow to Help?

Rebecca Byerly, Correspondent
Monday, 7 Jan 2013 | 8:11 PM ET
A poster at a protest against the gang rape of a 23-year-old in New Delhi, India
Raj K Raj | Hindustan Times | Getty Images
A poster at a protest against the gang rape of a 23-year-old in New Delhi, India

One of the many disturbing factors in the recent gang rape and torture of a young woman on a Delhi bus, that prompted widespread protests about the treatment of women, was that for almost 30 minutes no one stopped to help her and her friend as they lie badly beaten on the side of the road.

"Several auto-rickshaws, bikes, and cars slowed down but no one stopped to assist us," said the friend who was beaten Dec. 16, alongside the woman who later died in a Singapore hospital.

There are a couple reasons for the response, or lack thereof, say analysts. India has no "Good Samaritan Law" to give legal protection to people who step up to help, and Indians often shy away from police forces that are known for incompetence and harassment.

In a country that has no legal protection to people who give assistance to those who are injured, and a nascent emergency service system, it's not unusual for people to ignore injured people on the road.

"Any citizen who brings an injured person to the hospital can be detained until the police arrive," says Piyush Tewari, who created the "Save Life Foundation," a Delhi-based nongovernmental organization that tries to help people overcome reluctance to get involved and help victims of roadside accidents. "Police often harshly interrogate citizens who do assist injured people. They can also force them to be witnesses in court, a process that can take years."

A police patroller made the first call for assistance after the couple had been on the highway for more than 25 minutes. But by that time the young woman had lost a significant amount of blood.

Distrust of Police

The head of Delhi's Police Unit for Women, Suman Nalwa, blames the reticence to help the girl and her friend that night on the lack of brotherhood between the people and police. She says police need to be friendlier toward citizens so that people know they can go to them and not be harassed, even if they are engaging in an act of goodwill.

(Read More: Indian Rape Victim's Father Says He Wants Her Named)

Ms. Nalwa also says in large disconnected cities like Delhi, where people often commute from outside the city to work, it's not uncommon for stranded travelers to languish on the road for hours. "There is simply not a culture of getting involved."

Observers point out that helping an injured person in India isn't as easy as just calling an ambulance.

It took almost two-and-half hours for the young woman who was studying to be a physical therapist to receive medical treatment. Instead of taking her to the private hospital nearby the police had to drive nearly 25 minutes to a government facility.

Tewari says a Supreme Court ruling that requires private and government hospitals to admit all emergency patients needs to be better implemented and will cut down on the delays in getting help for those who need medical aid.

With only about 60 ambulances for the 15 million people living in New Delhi and surrounding areas it can take hours for help to arrive.

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New Volunteers

Mr. Tewari hopes to change that by training 8,000 volunteers to be first responders in the capital.

"These carefully selected and trained citizens will work with police to patrol their localities," says Tewari, who says he was inspired to start the NGO after his young cousin bled to death on the roadside as people walked past. He believes more people on the ground and the passing of some version of the "Good Samaritan Bill," which offers legal protection to people who give assistance to those who are injured, will go a long way in getting more people involved.

(Read More: Debating the Death Penalty for Rape in India)

Analysts say it will take more than a handful of new laws to encourage Indians to change longstanding mindsets.

"In cases of sexual violence like this one, where the girl and boy were both naked on the road; the question of morality comes up," says Ashis Nandy, a well-known political commentator. "People would be even less likely to get involved because they feel that in some way the girl and her friend brought this on themselves."

Today, a popular self-proclaimed Hindu spiritual guru Asaram Bapu told reporters the victim is as guilty as her rapists. He said she should have called the culprits brothers and begged them to stop. "This could have saved her dignity and life."

Still, some point to the recent protests as evidence that this type of thinking is changing in India.

"For the first time the issue of women's access to public spaces has become a mainstream concern of common people on the street," says Kavitha Khrisnan, the secretary of the All India Progressive Women's Association. "People are now talking the language of the people's movement and may be more inclined to help if they see someone suffering, especially a woman, on the street."

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