As sexual violence against women escalates in India, Sudha Ramachandran argues that its root causes must be addressed and challenged
On the night of November 27-28 this year, a 27-year-old veterinary doctor was gang-raped in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad. Her four assailants went on to suffocate her to death and then set her body on fire in a bid to destroy evidence.
Hours after the Hyderabad incident, a 25-year-old law student was gang-raped by twelve men in Ranchi. On the same day, in Cuddalore in Tamil Nadu, a 32-year-old woman was gang-raped.
Extreme violence often accompanies the penetration itself. In November 1973, a 26-year-old nurse was assaulted by a ward attendant at a Mumbai hospital, who sodomised and strangled her with a dog chain. The assault did not kill her but it cut off the oxygen supply to her brain, leaving her brain damaged. She was in a vegetative state till her death in May 2015.
In December 2012, 23-year-old ‘Nirbhaya’ was gang-raped on a moving bus in New Delhi. An iron rod was used to penetrate her, causing extensive damage to her intestines, which resulted in the latter being surgically removed and culminating in her death 13 days later.
Such sexual violence is routinely unleashed against women in India. It is pervasive and rising. Between 2001 and 2017, 415,786 rape cases were reported across the country, according to data provided by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). A woman is raped in India every 15 minutes and 90 cases of rape are registered on average daily across the country.
These figures, however, are just the tip of the iceberg as the majority of cases of sexual violence go unreported. Most victims prefer to remain silent because of the enormous social stigma attached to rape. Victim blaming is common. Questions are often raised about her character and why she was out on the streets at night. She is blamed for ‘inviting trouble’ by dressing ‘immodestly’.
The insensitive attitude of the police is a major deterrent to women when it comes to reporting a rape at a police station, as these all-male environments make women feel unsafe. Besides, the police are often reluctant to register a complaint of rape, especially if the suspect belongs to a dominant caste or is politically well connected. Not surprisingly, then, over 90 per cent of rapes go unreported.
Even when complaints are registered, it is rare that the victim gets justice.
At the national level, the total number of rape cases that went to trial was 146,201 in 2017 – the reference year for which the latest NCRB data is available – but only 5,822 cases resulted in convictions. Indeed, the conviction rate in rape cases was as low as 32.2 per cent at the national level and even lower in the metropolitan cities (27.2 per cent). In case after case, courts acquit the accused because of flawed police procedures, poor collation of medical evidence or pressure from politically or economically powerful persons.
India’s criminal justice system moves at a snail’s pace. According to NCRB data, at the end of 2017 police were found to have failed to resolve 29 per cent of all rape cases. The backlog in the judiciary is far worse, with nearly 88 per cent of all rape cases before the courts pending resolution in 2017. Although these figures mark an improvement from 2016, they are significantly worse than the 2001 figures.
In the wake of ‘Nirbhaya’s’ rape and murder, tens of thousands of people poured into the streets of Delhi and other cities calling for better security for women on the streets and public transport, police reforms, fast-tracking of rape case trials and stringent punishments for those convicted of rape. Similar demonstrations followed the recent rape and killing in Hyderabad.
Under public pressure after the ‘Nirbhaya’ case, the Indian government did act to introduce some measures to address India’s rape crisis. It has enacted laws that exact stringent punishments for sex crimes, including the death penalty for raping a girl below the age of 12, and has made stalking a crime. To speed up delivery of justice in rape cases, the law mandates that the investigation and trial in rape cases must each be completed within two months. The number of fast-track courts for rape trials has also been increased.
In addition, the government has set up emergency hotlines to provide swift help for those in distress. Importantly, it has set up the Nirbhaya Fund to support government and non-government initiatives to improve security for women.
However, poor implementation dogs these measures. Just 20 per cent of the budget of the Nirbhaya Fund has been spent so far and most projects are yet to take off. Emergency hotlines rarely work. And promises to reform and train police, making them a force capable of preventing rape, protecting survivors and facilitating the criminal justice system, are yet to be fulfilled.
The response of police in Hyderabad to appeals made by the veterinarian’s kin to locate her lays bare shocking levels of apathy and insensitivity. According to complaints made by the victim’s family members to India’s National Commission of Women, police initially refused to file a missing person’s complaint on their behalf, assuming the ‘victim must have eloped with someone’. Precious time that could have been used to locate her and perhaps prevent the crime was wasted, with the police being more preoccupied with questioning her character.
Following the recent spate of brutal rapes, many in India have demanded the castration or hanging of convicted rapists. However, the threat of tougher punishment is unlikely to deter perpetrators of sexual violence, especially when the root causes of rape and other kinds of violence against women remain alive and unaddressed.
Underlying India’s pervasive sexual violence is its patriarchal culture and deep-rooted misogyny, which encourages men (and women) to believe that women challenging this culture, however mild that challenge might be, deserve to be taught a lesson, even silenced. A patriarchal and misogynist culture justifies and normalises violence against women.
Worryingly, contrary to what is often reported in the media, a patriarchal mindset is not confined to feudal elements in India’s villages or to rootless migrants pouring into its towns and cities. Rather, misogyny defines the outlook of people of every strata of society – the poor and the rich, the marginalised and the mainstream, majority ethnic and religious groups as well as minorities – and not just in India but across the world.
Even the strongest laws providing for the sternest punishments cannot deter rapists so long as societal attitudes encourage violence against ‘rebellious’ women and girls. As long as we trivialise sexism, view macho behaviour as ‘cool’ and participate in a culture that objectifies women, sexual violence against women will continue.
Dismantling patriarchy or fighting misogyny will not be easy or swift. The battles will have to be waged in schools and workplaces, on streets and in the media.
Most importantly, changing misogynistic mindsets must start at home. Rather than telling their daughters to not get raped, Indian parents need to tell their sons not to rape.