India is a country rich with contrast. Here old meets new. Poverty grinds against prosperity. Cultures mingle and clash.

But exotic ancient India has run headlong into the rapidly growing economic powerhouse, where women have stepped out of traditional roles, resulting in harsh questions about their treatment which is considered to be among the worst in the world. Rape is common. Sexual assault goes unreported. The victim is often blamed, which the perpetrator walks free.

Recently the The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said rape is a "national problem" in India, reflecting the abysmal treatment of women in the country. And two rape cases focused international attention on the abuse and maltreatment.

The first case, in December 2012, was the gang-rape of a 23-year-old woman in New Delhi, heading home with her boyfriend after watching a movie. The second was the gang-rape of a Swiss tourist, savagely attacked near the iconic Taj Mahal, while on a cycling tour with her husband.

In the New Delhi case the couple had boarded a bus which they learned too late had been stolen by six men. Her boyfriend was savagely beaten. She was viciously gang-raped and died later, in hospital, of her injuries.

“I didn’t think this kind of act can (be done) by any human,” said her boyfriend in an interview with W5. (He cannot be identified by name under Indian law.) “It is really hard to forget all these things.”

The gang beat him using an iron rod. He suffered a broken leg and numerous bruises. Then they turned their attention to her.

“She tried to call police but they took her phone. She was crying for help. Once I fell to force, then one person took her away from me.”

The hour that followed was unspeakably brutal. Gang-raped, she was punched, bitten and tortured with a metal rod. Her internal injuries were so severe, her intestines had been torn apart. She was flown to a transplant centre in Singapore but 13 days after the attack she died.

Six men were charged with murder and rape – the bus driver pegged as the ringleader. One of the accused was a juvenile, 17 years old, and described as the most savage of the attackers.

Confronting a culture of abuse

There is a rape in New Delhi every 22 minutes, giving the city a miserable reputation as the rape capital of India. But, when news got out about the attack and gang-rape on the bus protests rocked the country. It forced a debate about discrimination, cultural beliefs, and the dangers of being a woman in India. Demonstrators surged outside the courthouse where the Indian government promised a speedy trial. And lawmakers in the Indian Parliament promised to get tough on sexual attacks on women.

Women interviewed by W5 in New Delhi told stories of rushing home, to avoid being on the street at night. We met Ankita Banerjee racing home after her college classes – to be home before sunset. “Anything can happen. And you have to live in that constant fear of getting raped, molested, getting trapped.”

“I have to think five times before getting up on a bus,” she said. “Because they will be men who stand on you, fall on you, touch you, you know, feel you. They’ll (tell you) it’s unintentional but they’re taking advantage of the fact that it’s a crowded bus.”

I lived in New Delhi for a few years so I understand what women here mean when they talk about the staring, the whistles, the comments, having men completely unknown to you take your picture with their mobile phone camera. They usually call it ‘Eve teasing’ which is a deceptively playful name for harassment. It takes many forms, it is common practice, and it’s everywhere.

Getting groped is considered so routine that the Delhi metro introduced ‘ladies only’ subway cars. Not even husbands are allowed on board with their wives. Half a million women use these cars every day, a glimpse at how India is changing with more women choosing work or study, trading saris for skinny jeans. That they need their own subway car shows what a gamble it can be.

For Delhi University students who we met outside a subway station, they’re crucial. “We always make sure we travel in a ladies compartment. Because when you’re in mixed male-female train you have men standing close to you, doing things.”

Seeking change

They are right to be nervous. Of more than 600 reported rape cases filed last year there was only one conviction. It sends the wrong message, insists Dr. Ranjana Kumari, the Director of the Delhi-based NGO, Centre for Social Research, and a campaigner for the rights of women in India.

“Three out of four get off scot-free. That means only one gets punished out of four cases,” she said. “So the message is law is not stringent enough, so it doesn’t act as a deterrent, and also people don’t fear the law. And that is why people feel they can (commit) sexual crimes with impunity.“

The recent rape cases spurred the Indian government to pass new laws protecting women. Stalking, voyeurism and sexual harassment are now a crime, and sexual assault that results in a victim's death is now punishable by the death penalty.

In the Delhi gang-rape case the Indian system is making a show of justice. The six accused were brought to trial at a special speeded-up court process. But even there the case has dragged on for several months. And one of the accused has died – a suspected suicide in his cell.

None of the accused gets any sympathy from the boyfriend of the victim, himself brutally assaulted. He believes if convicted all of them should receive the death penalty.

“I don’t have words because they are not, the humanity is completely gone. So I want only the death sentence for them, as a milestone for these cases so we can stop at least this sort of brutality in India.”