Yesterday, my colleague Jesse Singal blogged about the problem of unreported rapes in India. This follows the tragic death of a 23-year old student whose almost unbelievably vicious, ghastly gang rape and murder has sparked angry protests in most major cities across India.

Responding to this incident, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has issued a call demanding reform in India’s rape laws and treatment of surivivors. One reason that rape is underreported in the country is that authorities there are unresponsive, or even hostile, to rape victims when they attempt to report their assaults. HRW reports that

a girl in Punjab committed suicide a month after she was gang raped because police were unwilling to register her complaint or arrest the accused.

Worse, the police themselves have been allowed to rape with impunity. Again from HRW:

For example, in October 2011 police in Chhattisgarh were accused of sexual assaultof an adivasi teacher, Soni Sori, while she was in their custody. There still have been no arrests and prosecutions in the alleged rape and murder in 2004 of Manorama Devi, who was taken into army custody from her home in the northeastern state of Manipur.

HRW reports that survivors are often humiliated when they seek medical treatment or counseling, or when they attempt to go to the police. India does not have a uniform protocol for the examination and treatment of survivors of sexual assault.

Moreover, India’s laws regarding sexual assault are archaic:

India does not have a general definition of sexual assault. It only defines rape (penile penetration), “outraging the modesty” of women, and “insulting the modesty” of women. Indian law does not recognize the offense of marital rape.

Another major issue is the fact that members of the security forces who commit sexual assault are very difficult to prosecute. A law called the Armed Forces Special Powers Act grants them quasi-immunity for sexual assault and other human rights abuses.

Clearly, India’s sexual assault laws as well as its protocol for investigating crimes of sexual violence and examining and treating survivors need to be changed. In May of this year, HRW and about 90 other civil society groups and individuals wrote a letter to India’s prime minister which requested immediate action to “develop a coordinated response to gender-based violence, especially sexual assault.”

It appears that no action was taken, but if ever the time were right, that time is now. The victim’s death has unleashed an unprecedented torrent of protests, outrage, and grief across India. Observers say that India may have reached a “turning point” in its attitude toward women; there is talk of “a critical shift.”

Well, a lot of us have heard this kind of talk before, in a variety of contexts, and it’s easy to get cynical about these things. Obviously, India’s problem of sexual violence is deep, widespread, and powerful, and it will not be solved quickly or easily. But UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is speaking out, urging India to respect and value women, and to take “further steps and reforms to deter such crimes [of sexual violence] and bring perpetrators to justice.”

This is good news; if strong international pressure brought to bear upon India in a tactically shrewd manner, it might help bring some desperately needed changes to the country’s shambolic rape and sexual assault policies. To help India resolve its human rights crisis, the international human rights community needs to keep on doing what it’s always been doing: document abuses, speak out about them, and advocate strong reforms.

Ultimately, India itself will determine what happens, and Indian feminists and other domestic activists will be the most important players in this struggle. But the international human rights community also has the capability to play a crucial, and potentially powerfully constructive, role.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee