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Beyond rape trial, a bigger question about women's status in India

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The Delhi gang rape, and the consequent flood of reports on rampant sexual harassment and violence in India, has brought global attention to an issue that has been largely overshadowed by the country's "growth story": Despite prominent female leaders and important strides in education, many Indian women continue to face discrimination and violence daily, especially if they are from marginal communities.

Crimes against women are high, illegal child marriage and payment of dowries persist, and some gender gaps are widening.

The World Economic Forum ranked India 105 on the Gender Gap Index in 2012, up from the year before, but below its 2006 ranking, and far below countries like Ghana and Bangladesh. It scored highest on political empowerment and lowest in women's health and survival.

There is "great resilience in the basic features of gender inequality in India," says well-known development economist Jean Dreze, "in contrast with many other countries – including Bangladesh – where there are significant signs of social change."

The challenges faced by Indian women reflect broader contradictions: Two decades of economic growth and globalization have brought improved opportunities but also greater inequality. That paradox was captured in a July survey that ranked India as the worst place to be a woman among the Group of 20 countries that make up the world's biggest economies, based on parameters like health services, threat of violence, and property rights.

Slight gains, stronger inequalities

Ravi Das Camp, where four of the men accused of the gang rape lived, is not unlike the victim's neighborhood in the opposite corner of New Delhi.

Both are full of poor families reaching for a better life, including through the education of their daughters. Sharma worked in a gym and waited tables to help his father, a balloon seller, put his two younger sisters through school.

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