In Pursuit of Holistic Justice and Human Dignity in India


In December, the world was shocked by reports of a brutal gang rape of a student on a bus in New Delhi. The young girl eventually died from her injuries, prompting massive protests, outrage and demands for justice among the Indian public. In response to the public outcry, the Indian government amended its penal code, enacting stiffer penalties for rape convictions, removing barriers to prosecuting public officials for sexual assault, and criminalizing stalking, voyeurism and sexual harassment for the first time. The six men, one of whom is a juvenile, were eventually arrested and charged with rape and murder. Authorities have promised a speedy trial for the other accused perpetrators.

Governments have a God-given responsibility to protect “the political community from those who threaten life, property, and public peace.” Punishing perpetrators and enacting legislation to protect victims and deter future crimes are critical elements of justice.

But these efforts are incomplete, as painfully illustrated by the juxtaposition of the passage of India’s new rape laws against the report of a British tourist jumping from her hotel window to escape molestation by a hotel owner and the alleged gang rape of a Swiss tourist traveling with her husband. The new Indian law failed to include marital rape and retained longstanding impunity for the Indian military against accusations of sexual assault. Not to mention the myriad ways in which women continue to be dehumanized in India, including sex selective abortion, child marriage or discrimination as widows.

Whether combatting injustice globally or internationally, we must look at issues of justice holistically, developing a long-term vision which includes aspects of criminal justice as well as the social structures that enable injustice. In India, as in the U.S., the dignity of women cannot be preserved simply by passing tougher laws, important as these are. Communities of individuals and multiple institutions must work together, each fulfilling their God-given roles, to shape cultural attitudes about women, to aid in enforcement and to protect the vulnerable.

There remains a disconnect in India between what the law demands and how the law is applied to its citizens, particularly the poor or those in more rural, less developed areas. For example, it is illegal to marry before age 18, but over 47 percent of girls in India are married before their 18th birthday, some even before puberty.

Over the last 30 years, significant, incremental improvements to India’s rape laws have been made, yet most Indian women have not reaped the benefits of these hard-fought legal changes. The Indian judiciary is too small to serve their large and growing population. Having only one-fifth as many judges per capita as we have in the U.S., the backlog of rape cases is immense. The law enforcement system is hampered by a lack of resources for modern forensic science. And local law enforcement officials, influenced by a culture that has devalued women for thousands of years, often fail to arrest accused perpetrators, or when they do, may treat victims to further indignities.

Organizations such as International Justice Mission (IJM) serve as an example of how thinking holistically and valuing the contributions of various institutions can help combat injustice and repair broken social structures. In India, IJM works to rescue women trapped in brothels, using Indian law to bring sex traffickers and brothel owners to justice. A week before India’s parliament passed the new sexual assault law, IJM announced a landmark victory in India’s courts: In Kolkata, five men were convicted of sex trafficking, one of whom was also convicted of rape. The young girls they enslaved are now being cared for. Meanwhile, their country is slowly improving the rule of law in the area of sexual violence. Because many IJM staff, lawyers and investigators are Indian, IJM is also enabling Indian Christians to make a difference in their own communities.

Why should all this matter to Christians in the U.S.?

First, although we have unique responsibilities as citizens of our own political community, Jesus made it clear that the command to love our neighbor does not stop at our border. We are obligated as followers of Christ to care about injustice both at home and abroad and should seek ways to partner with faith-based non-profits and encourage our own government to help improve the lives of people around the world.

Second, our government has a unique opportunity to work with developing countries such as India to encourage them to improve their legal system to promote human dignity. Although the means will vary from country to country, we have diplomatic and economic tools at our disposal that can—if used wisely and sensitively—make a difference. In the gang rape case, the U.S. State Department awarded the victim, along with nine other women around the world, the International Women of Courage Award. In other cases, financial aid has been conditioned on improving human rights and the rule of law.

Third, our horror at the way women are treated in India should encourage us to look at the ways our own culture is complicit in objectifying and commodifying women. With the help of the Holy Spirit, we should each ask about the ways we contribute, even unwittingly, to practices or systems that undermine the dignity of women and girls. In our own culture this can range from pornography to more subtle ways we communicate that women are valuable because of how they look or what they achieve.

Finally, as we are reminded by our celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus this weekend, in our efforts to promote human dignity and combat injustice we can move forward with great hope, knowing that we are serving the one who will one day completely restore justice to the whole earth.

—Michelle Crotwell Kirtley is the Editor of Capital Commentary, a Trustee of the Center for Public Justice and a former health and science policy advisor on Capitol Hill.