Students hold candles as they pray during a candlelight vigil for a gang rape victim, who was assaulted in New Delhi, in Ahmedabad December 31, 2012.
Students hold candles as they pray during a candlelight vigil for a gang rape victim, who was assaulted in New Delhi, in Ahmedabad December 31, 2012.Reuters/Amit Dave

The 23-year-old Indian woman, whose barbaric gang rape and subsequent death at the hands of her perpetrators heralded calls for greater safety and security for womenfolk in the country, will be posthumously awarded the Bravery award by the US administration on 8 March. Nevertheless, many have questioned if her demise called for individual merit considering that she, like countless other oppressed women, had no choice but to yield into the cruelty inflicted upon her.

Contrary to some views that the award had distinctly acknowledged her ordeal, the truth is she is now the voice of the afflicted regardless of geographical boundaries and is held symbolic for the untold saga of sexual violence. Hence, the award is in honour of all those who endured similar attacks.

The young woman, whose steadfast battle for life till the very end, earned her the name "Nirbhaya" meaning fearless, triggered nationwide protests against the grievous crime and trumpeted demands for the government to enforce stronger laws for protection of women. Her perseverance for justice and will to live led US Secretary of State John Kerry and First Lady Michelle Obama to list her among ten other women from around the world to receive the International Women of Courage Award. But for this posthumous honour to be granted solely to her is contentious, unless it is also in recognition of other victims, whose identities remain hidden in their own relentless battles for justice.

While India expressed satisfaction on Nirbhaya being internationally honoured, the response was of a general type disregarding the cries of other victims who run from pillar to post for higher authority to take notice of their sufferings in gender-based violence. With the government now waking up to the exponential rise in such crimes in the aftermath of Nirbhaya's death, these women are hoping for relief from social oppression, commonly seen in a patriarchal society such as ours.

Nirbhaya may be seen as an icon for many women in the country and across the world. Indeed, the flurry of protests triggered by her personal ordeal and death have stirred the government to propose stronger measures to curtail the recurring violence against the powerless. For perhaps the very first time, the government has prioritized the need for woman's safety - from the setting up of a special commission, the JS Verma Committee, to announcing a slew of steps for the empowerment of women, in the 2013 Union Budget.

But would it have been the same if the Delhi Braveheart outlived her attackers and saw to their justice? Hers was perhaps the worst of all sexual assaults; she suffered brain damage and her internal organs were compromised, owing to penetration with an iron rod used by her rapists in the attack. Several victims, who survived such attacks, perhaps less appalling, were commended for their bravery but years later are waiting fastidiously for the government to act on their promises of meting out justice.   

As in the Suryanelli gang-rape incident, dating back to 1996 in which a woman, then 16, was sexually assaulted by 40-odd men over a period of 40 days in Kerala. Condemned as the 'fallen girl', the woman lives far away from the public eye but is still firm on seeking justice. Out of the 36 men tried by the High Court in 2005, only one was convicted. One of her tormentors was alleged to be Rajya Sabha deputy chairman PJ Kurien, who denied charges of rape. The case has been pending since.

Society often frowns upon rape victims and their families, and sometimes the system itself turns against them, particularly if the case involves high-profile persons as the offenders. Women with their submissiveness are merely regarded as objects of exploitation that men can get away with. It is this mindset that is deep-rooted in society and leads to the belief that it is the woman who is the 'cause' of such crimes.

As Colin Gonsalves, senior lawyer in Supreme Court and founder-director of Human Rights Law Network put it, "Rape victims suffer persecution at various levels. To begin with, there is the rape itself. Society shuns the victim and the family. This sets in motion a self-perpetuating canard that the victim is of loose moral character. The unsympathetic attitude of the police and the investigating agencies worsens their plight," reported Deccan Chronicle.

In the case of the Delhi gang rape, the onslaught of the protests, which centered from Delhi's famed Jawaharlal Nehru University, and the subsequent media attention played a big role in instilling a change in the social fabric, causing a shift from contempt directed at victims to proliferating anger against such heinous acts. The crime occurred during a period when the process of raising the threatened ranks, whether in the work place or at home, crossed its nascent stage following passage of the National Policy For The Empowerment Of Women in 2001.

The nation's youth, who form the backbone of every society, have increasingly turned to social media paving the way for social transition to centuries-long traditions. If at all social media did have a place in civil society during the 1990s, instances of sexual crimes and other forms of violence against women, particularly the Suryanelli rape case, might have been addressed on a different note and with a positive approach.

Both victims hailed from small villages and were said to have nurtured big dreams for their own futures. But for one, it was the unfortunate timing of her attack that led to a fate woven with adversity and shame.  

The Delhi gang-rape incident has without question generated global consciousness about the plight of distressed women. But on the home front, has the Indian government gone too far in lauding Nirbhaya's valiant fight for life?

The act of allotting an apartment to her family for free has raised fingers to the government's lurky approach in dealing with sensitive issues such as these. Some have slammed it as an over-sympathetic effort to compensate the family's misfortune, while others admonished the government of bribing its way through to avoid accountability.

What now remains to be seen is a similar reaction from the government to all other sexual harassment cases.