Friday, January 17, 2014

India's Hidden Rape Crisis

The reported gang rape of a Danish woman this week in one of New Delhi’s most popular tourist areas has reignited conversations about sexual violence against women in the world’s largest democracy. Since the 2012 gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman, known as “J” in the Indian press, the world has been fixated on India’s “rape crisis,” especially when rapes are perpetrated against foreign women. In July 2013, six men were sentenced to life in prison for the beating, rape, and robbery of a Swiss woman. Both “J” and the Swiss woman were accompanied by male companions, giving lie to the myth that women with male protectors are safer than those without. The Danish woman, who left India on Wednesday, was alone, but in a purportedly safe area frequented by Western tourists.

The attack on the Danish woman took place near New Delhi Railway Station

Since the 2012 death of “J,” who died of internal injuries sustained during her attack, four of the five perpetrators were sentenced to death for her murder, while the fifth was incarcerated as a juvenile and could be released within four years. A committee was formed to respond to the massive protests calling for greater protections for females in the face of a patriarchal society that has long condoned violence against women. The Justice Verma Committee criminalized stalking, acid violence, disrobing, peeping, non-consensual photos or videos, and specified that the absence of a struggle does not equal consent. It also required jail time for police and other public servants who do not report complaints, a major obstacle for victims, especially in close-knit rural communities. Dr. Shershah Syed, an Indian obstetrician, actually counsels patients against going to the police: “When I treat a rape victim, I always advise her not to go to the police. Because if she does, the police might just rape her again.”

Yet the fixation on gang rapes by strangers, especially when perpetrated against foreigners, misses the wider ongoing rape crisis in India. Sensational stranger rapes grab headlines, but the vast majority of rapes are perpetrated by attackers the victim knows, a trend that holds true across borders, even in the United States. Rapes committed within families, especially at the hands of spouses, are hushed up and decriminalized. The Justice Verma Committee, for instance, did not outlaw marital rape or the rape of a “married child” by an adult spouse. As Sanjay Srivastava of the University of Oregon points out, “Our public places are unsafe but they are not really as unsafe as our private ones.” The larger rape crisis in India is not happening out in the streets at the hands of strangers; it is taking place in the homes and bedrooms of Indian women.

Despite the fact that strangers do not commit the vast majority of rapes in India, the cases making the headlines have drawn international and domestic attention to the issue of sexual violence as a whole. A 2011 poll found that one out of four Indian men admit to having committed an act of sexual violence, and a rape is reported every 21 minutes in India. These statistics are staggering but do not paint the whole picture, as systemic corruption and the dishonor associated with rape mean that the crime is vastly underreported. The rising public discourse because of high profile cases will perhaps make it easier for Indian men and women to discuss sexual violence openly and safely, and appears to have already contributed to a rising number of reported rapes around the country. In Delhi, where both “J” and the Danish woman were attacked, 1,000 rapes had been reported as of August 2013, whereas in the entirety of 2012 only 433 rapes were reported.

Nonetheless, India has been termed the worst G20 country in which to be a woman, which has to do with everything from harassment to sexual violence to murder. Eighty percent of Delhi women in India report being “eve-teased,” or sexually harassed, on a regular basis. Across the country, 25,000 cases of rape were reported in 2012. Economists estimate that two million women in the country are “missing” every year: 12% disappear at birth due to sex selective infanticide or abortion and 25% die in childhood, largely due to lack of access to the same level of health care and nutrition available to their male counterparts. While the conversation about women’s safety and sexual violence has been elevated to an international feature story, the broader picture of an India where simply being female can be a death sentence is still the reality for hundreds of millions of Indian women.


  1. Unreal. Inflamed and indignant. How is this OK?

  2. In addition to what Vicky wrote, which I wholeheartedly agree with, there is another cost to this type of behavior: India ranks ( 134th in the "Ease of Doing Business" ranking by the World Bank. With so much poverty that is yet to be seriously addressed, India needs to get its act together and start attracting greater foreign investment. First, it needs to figure out how to treat women better.