Shame sweeps across India as soul-searching begins

News of 23-year-old medical student's death numbs nation

The death of a student in a foreign hospital after a gang-rape in Delhi has generated a deep sense of shame in India, the second country to elect a female premier and one of the world's emerging powers.

"And SHE PASSES AWAY in S'pore RIP. Our impotence stares us in the face," tweeted the veteran Bollywood actress Shabana Azmi as news of the 23-year-old medical student's death in a Singapore hospital began to spread on Saturday.

"May SHE become the wakeup call our country needs. We must soulsearch."

Ever since news of the savage assault broke nearly a fortnight ago, India has been forced to confront an often-hidden epidemic of violence against women.

While it took a killing in Delhi to bring the issue to the fore, a stream of stories that would usually go unreported have since highlighted that the problem is even worse in rural areas.

According to a study released earlier this year by the TrustLaw organisation, India is the worst country of the group of 20 biggest economies (G20) to be a woman, citing issues such as infanticide and child marriage.

On Thursday night, it emerged that a 17-year-old girl had committed suicide in a rural area of the state of Punjab over the police's handling of her accusation that she had been raped by two men.

The girl's sister said one of the investigators tried to persuade her to settle the case by accepting cash or agreeing to marry one of her attackers.

The 80-year-old Prime Minister Manmohan Singh acknowledged that the country had a "problem" when he addressed a group of state chief ministers this week.

But it was left to Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born leader of the main governing Congress party who is not in government, to articulate the depth of distress.

"As a woman and mother, I understand the pain; Her fight will not go in vain," said Gandhi on Saturday after earlier talking of her "shame... that our daughters, sisters and mothers are unsafe".

Gandhi is the daughter-in-law of Indira Gandhi who became India's prime minister in 1960, only 13 years after independence.

India has also had a woman president and female opposition leaders.

But many commentators argue that there is deep-rooted misogyny in India, a country where sexual harassment is often described as "eve-teasing".

A survey last week by the Gujarat-based Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) detailed how at least 20 men accused of raping women ran in Indian elections in the last five years.

"Indian men should change their attitude towards women. We as men treat them badly, abuse them, harass them and even rape them. We have to change ourselves," said Ashim Jain, a playwright who joined a protest in Delhi on Saturday.

"The villain is within us. The government can only catch the villain, not stop him from committing the crime," he told AFP.

The sense of shame about the gang-rape has been compounded by the decision to transfer the victim to Singapore, dealing a blow to India's hard-fought reputation for medical excellence.

Questioned by the NDTV news channel about whether India lacked the necessary medical facilities, Yatin Mehta, a Delhi-based doctor who accompanied the victim on the flight to Singapore, said it could not compete with the tiny city state.

"In my opinion, comparing a government hospital with Singapore's private hospital -- there is no comparison," he said.

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