Dubbed the ‘rape capital’ of the world by More Magazine, stories about sexual assault imply that no woman is safe in India. But is this accurate?
Crowd Source, a website dedicated to research and advocacy around sexual violence, reports that 93 women are raped every day in India; 70 percent of women currently living in India will endure sexual abuse during their lifetime; 94 percent of victims know their attacker and only 27 percent of attackers will be convicted.
According to data from the National Crime Records Bureau of India, cases of rape have doubled over the last five years. In one graph showing the number of incidents of rape, molestation and sexual harassment, cases appear to have increased from 38,784 in 2007 to 70,739 in 2013. Last week, the BBC said that 2000 cases were reported in the city of New Delhi during 2014.
However, these numbers are rarely put into context. As with many parts of Indian culture, modernization has caused some major changes – and increased reporting of rapes is one of these outcomes.
TIME reporter Nilanjana Bhowmick said that: “Along with the modernization of society, more Indian women are being educated and are going out to work. They are breaking out of the subservient mold that society had given to them and are more independent”.
The increase in reported cases has also inspired other women to come forward. Bhowmick notes that reported cases in the capital almost doubled – from 142 to 359 – in the three months following the 2012 Delhi gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh. High profile cases like Singh’s have been reported by Western media since the 1970s, particularly when tourists, foreign visitors or children are victims.
Sweta Bhattacharya, a trainee doctor at Burdwan Dental College and Hospital, sees this foreign attention as a doubled-edged sword.
“On one hand it spreads awareness and on the other hand, it makes me feel ashamed, and makes India look so bad” she said. “There is so much more to my beautiful country – all the international media focuses on its poverty, rape, Modi and how terrible we are.”
But Sneha Sankar, a Fellow at Teach For India in Pune, sees the heightened attention as a positive, giving women the courage to speak out.
“That is what most women have gained as a result of the recent media attention – the courage to speak about such things openly, especially around male company, the courage to report such crimes to the police and the courage to fight for their rights,” she said.
Sankar displayed her own courage three years ago, when, travelling on a train with her father, she was sexually harassed by a drunken man while everybody else was sleeping. She followed procedure and filed a complaint with the police.
“What irked me the most was the nonchalance with which some of the policemen treated the entire issue,” she said. “They asked me why I had to create such a ruckus in the middle of the night and also told me that I was wasting my time and energy reporting the crime as the perpetrator would anyway go scot free the next morning.”
Sankar said some of the policemen laughed at her in the presence of her father, asking her why she was “taking this issue so seriously.”
Gardiner Harris, New York Times’ South-East Asia correspondent, describes the Delhi police as “corrupt, easily susceptible to political interference, heavily male and woefully understaffed.” He also cites multiple examples of apathy and insensitivity towards victims.
Harris reports that many Indian women say the presence of police officers makes them feel less safe. “In case after case, the police have used their powers to deliver abused women into the hands of their abusers,” he wrote.
Other institutions acted more positively.
Shambhavi Saxena, a post graduate student at Delhi University, takes pride in her school, even though it took a high-profile rape case to inspire action.
“Across Delhi University, the immediate response was to set up an Anti-Sexual Harassment Cell in every college,” she said. “It’s a shame we didn’t have one all along, but that was a good outcome.”
In her TIME article, Bhowmick adds, “No country in the world can claim to have witnessed protests against rape on the scale of India’s, where people turned out in the tens of thousands to voice their shock and sadness.”
Still, Bhattacharya feels cultural hurdles remain.
“Internally, the patriarchal mentality is still alive. Girls are still expected to be submissive, the ones to be dominated … Basic security measures are not present. That said, how much can security do when the mentality is down in the dumps?”
Within the last year some positive changes and strategies have been implemented: taxi service Uber has added a panic button and tracking to their app; an all-female taxi firm has been founded; more female police officers have been employed; more security has been added to prisons, and a 20 year minimum sentence for rape has been implemented.
However, it remains a concern that these steps were taken as a response rather than an initiative: a woman was raped and killed by an Uber driver in Delhi last December; the failures of the police have been frequently highlighted, and a convicted rapist was lynched whilst in prison – reasons that these particular institutions would need to react publicly to protect their image.
Bharat Misra, a mass communication student at the Symbiosis Institute of Media and Communication in Pune, says it will take time for her country to make the cultural shift.
She said, “For the majority of the population, a decent education is a distant dream, let alone a proper understanding of these deep-seated issues. I feel that mass communication must play a pivotal role in catalyzing a social change, by reaching out to the masses. We must find concrete, innovative ways to develop an easily-understood narrative.”