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

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The young woman who stepped onto a private bus in Delhi one late evening in December before she was gang-raped, brutally beaten, and then left for dead was training to be a physiotherapist – the pride and hope of her father, a baggage handler at Delhi's new airport.

Over the past two decades, India has almost closed its gender gap in primary education and considerably improved the secondary school gap: For every 100 boys who attend school, 98 girls now attend primary school and 85 girls attend secondary school.

Political participation has increased, and some health indicators are also up: More pregnant women get hospital care and fewer die during childbirth.

On other fronts, however, the picture is murkier. Of most concern are low sex ratios, which reflect a persistent preference for sons across South Asia, and unabated violence against women.

India's birth sex ratio has continued to drop, falling from 927 female babies per 1,000 male ones in 2001 to 914 in 2011. The trend is attributed to an increase in sex-selective abortions.

One 2011 study estimated that the skewed ratio would result in India having 20 percent more men than women in the next two decades. Imbalanced sex ratios may be associated with an increase in violence, which some worry is already happening.

At the very least, "inequalities may keep getting reinforced," says Priya Nanda, director of the social and economic development group for the International Center for Research on Women in New Delhi. She points to Haryana, a northern state with the worst gender imbalance, which is seeing "marriage trafficking" because of a shortage of women.

Recorded crimes against women have risen in recent decades. Rapes have doubled since 1991, with police registering 24,206 cases in 2011. Dowry-related deaths (women killed for bringing inadequate dowries to their husbands' families) and molestation have also increased, with almost 43,000 cases of molestation registered in 2011.

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