Aditi Malik

India, Ph.D in Political Science, Northwestern University, Illinois, USA, Associate Professor of Political Science, College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, MA, USA 2024

Mobilizing Public Protests against Rape: New Intersectional Insights from India

Aditi Malik

Project Description

Gender-based violence (GBV) is a significant threat to women’s lives worldwide. In March 2022, at the Commission on the Status of Women in New York, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres highlighted this reality, stating, “gender-based violence is an ongoing emergency in its own right” (United Nations 2022). In recent decades, many governments around the world have implemented policies and taken key decisions to combat GBV—from amending and strengthening rape laws in Liberia to removing an elected judge over his sentencing in a rape case in California. Importantly, a number of these decisions have been spurred not merely by the proclamations of leaders of international organizations (IOs), but more directly by citizen collective action.

Such collective action—particularly, major protests involving ordinary citizens—have helped to usher in vital legal reforms against sexual and gender-based violence in many countries around the world. For example, significant demonstrations against the 2019 rape and murder of University of Cape Town student, Uyinene Mrwetyana, served to bring about stricter punitive measures against perpetrators of GBV in South Africa. Yet, it is amply clear that while some instances of sexual gender-based violence (SGBV) galvanize citizens in mass protests, other equally egregious incidents do not.

This study investigates dramatic variation in both the pace and extent of collective action against rape in India. Combining descriptive statistics from an original event dataset with in-depth interviews with activists, lawyers, journalists, and academics across three subnational sites in the country, it carefully teases out the processes through which mass demonstrations emerged in the aftermath of some deadly rapes in twenty-first century India but not others.

Based on exploratory fieldwork, I expect to find that the activities of two key actors—activists and journalists—render some women worthy of empathy and therefore deserving of mass public action in the country. Put differently, I posit that the extent to which activists and reporters shine a light on different cases of rape in turn shapes citizens’ willingness to take to the streets. I suggest that three distinct circumstances stand to generate different public responses to rape. First, in cases where women are deemed worthy of empathy—either because they occupy, or are imagined to hail from, privileged social locations—journalists and activists’ efforts to shine a light on rape will generate rapid mass protests. Second, under certain conditions, contingent developments can result in activist, reporter, and ultimately wider public attention to center around instances of sexual violence in which women from marginalized, rather than privileged, communities are victimized. In these cases, delayed mass protests or relatively localized protests will emerge in the aftermath of rape. Third, when neither of these conditions are met, I posit that a lack of collective action against rape will be observed.

The major contributions of this research are thus two-fold. First, while much existing research on anti-rape mobilization in India and elsewhere has provided rich insights on instances of SGBV that resulted in significant public demonstrations, this study also critically incorporates cases that did not result in such protests and thereby methodologically and substantively advances the extant literature. Second, by paying close attention to how the social locations of victims shape the possibilities for anti-rape demonstrations, this work deepens intersectional understandings about the drivers and conditions that support mass collective action against SGBV.


Aditi Malik is Associate Professor of Political Science at the College of the Holy Cross. She studies Comparative Politics with regional specializations in Africa and South Asia. Aditi's substantive interests include the study of political and gender-based violence, political parties, social movements and contentious politics, ethnic and gender politics, and small-N cross-regional comparisons. She has conducted fieldwork on these topics in Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Cambodia, India, and Nepal. Her academic research has been published in Commonwealth & Comparative Politics; African Studies Review; Journal of Contemporary African Studies; Politics, Groups, and Identities; India Review; and PS: Political Science & Politics, among other venues. Aditi's first book, Playing with Fire: Parties and Political Violence in Kenya and India was published by Cambridge University Press in 2024.

About:  Aditi Malik