NEW DELHI (TrustLaw) - The unprecedented public protests and national debate over the treatment of women following a brutal gang rape and murder case in India suggest the country could play a pioneering role in advancing gender equality around the world, says American activist and playwright Eve Ensler.
Ensler, founder of V-Day, a global campaign to end violence against women, said the protests - which saw thousands of people in cities across India take to the streets to demand justice and more safety after a woman was assaulted by six people on a bus - were "extraordinary".
"I've been working on the issue of violence against women for 15 years and I have never seen any country where, for so many weeks, there are so many stories discussing rape, equality, amending laws in the national newspapers … where sexual violence is out there in the public discourse every day," Ensler told TrustLaw in an interview last week during a visit to India.
"That's a breakthrough in consciousness which many feminists like me have for many years been waiting for. With the discussion on sexual violence, the window to women's equality is open wider here than I've ever seen it. India is the vanguard."
Despite an economic boom in India over the last two decades that has brought more equality, centuries of deep-rooted conservative and patriarchal beliefs persist.
Girls and women in India face a barrage of threats. Reports of sexual and domestic violence, female foeticide, dowry deaths, acid attacks and child marriage are common.
India's vocal women's rights movement has for decades fought to bring political voice and economic empowerment to millions of Indian women, but the savagery of an assault on a 23-year-old physiotherapy student on December 16 stunned the nation.
For the first time, it brought the issue of gender rights into the living rooms of the urban middle classes, the campuses of universities and colleges and into the mainstream media.
The victim was attacked after boarding a bus in South Delhi, where she was raped and tortured with an iron rod before being left bleeding on a highway. The woman, who cannot be named due to Indian laws, died two weeks later from internal injuries.
Six people have been arrested. Five have been charged with rape and murder. The sixth person is being processed as a juvenile and is likely to be tried separately.
Ensler, who wrote "The Vagina Monologues", an award-winning play on the female experience, was on a three-week trip to India as part of her One Billion Rising campaign, which will bring together one billion people across the world on February 14 in a stand against violence against women through dance and the Arts.
"I have been in universities and in villages. I have danced through the streets of Kerala with women. I have been sitting with Dalit (low-caste) and tribal women and I have been sitting with female doctors and corporate women. Everyone is talking about this incident and how we must stop this," said Ensler.
"What we are seeing is a re-energisation of the feminist movement in India and the world, as well as an escalation of it. Something has been unleashed in India … the genie is out of the bottle."
As a result of public pressure after the gang rape, the Indian government has set up a commission to look into the issue of sexual violence against women.
Many ideas are being mooted, including fast-track courts for sex crimes and strengthening the criminal justice system to ensure victims get justice. Other suggestions include bringing gender sensitisation and sex education into schools and making politicians who have been charged with rape more accountable.
Ensler emphasised that it was important to continue to "fan the fire" that had been lit to ensure gender rights remained not only at the top of India's agenda, but also a key global priority.
"I think going forward it's going be very exciting and very challenging because a lot of the issues people didn't want to talk about are now out there," said Ensler.
"It's going to require strategy, but everyone must keep this fire burning. Violence against women has to be the central issue of our times and of this country."
TrustLaw is a global centre for free legal assistance and anti-corruption news run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. For more TrustLaw stories, visit www.trust.org/trustlaw (www.trust.org/trustlaw)