In India these days, women’s lives are not just cheap; they come at no cost at all.
A woman walking on the street can be picked up with no trouble at all. She can be raped, beaten and left in the cold to die a horrible death. The perpetrators, if unlucky, might be sentenced for a few years. That is if they’re caught. That is if the case is reported at all.
“There is a sense of impunity, a knowledge that more often than not they will get away with the crime,” says Kiran Manral, an activist working on child abuse and violence against women. “Also, the judicial process is long and time consuming, and very few victims even report the rape for fear of social stigma as well as the dread of dealing with the judicial process,” she adds.
According to reports, for every case that is brought to the police, fifty go unreported. That’s not all; the National Crime Records Bureau says the possibility of someone actually being convicted for rape has declined by one third in the past year.
As I write this, a victim of rape is fighting for her life in a Delhi hospital. She was 23, a physiotherapist with her whole life ahead of her. Returning from watching Life Of Pi with a friend, she made the mistake of taking a private bus, not knowing the fate that awaited her. Now, even if she survives her horrific injuries, she will probably have to be fed intravenously for the rest of her life. This is because the men who raped her caused such damage that most of her intestines had to be removed by the doctors in order to save her life. While the sheer brutality of this case has sparked protests across India, she’s only the latest casualty of India’s rape epidemic.
About a fortnight ago, a 16-year-old girl died in the hospital after she set herself on fire after being raped by two men who had been stalking her. The rapists’ relatives watched on and did nothing to intervene. Traumatised, she poured kerosene on herself and set herself on fire.
Many analysts have tried to fathom the reasons for the rising rate of sexual assault. Marnal says that the main reasons are, “change in social attitudes, urban isolation, declining gender ratio, easy access to pornography, distorted perceptions of relationships and the social taboo around sex.”
But if you ask Jitender Chhatar, a leader of a khap panchayat (local council) in the state of Haryana, it’s because of chow mein. “To my understanding, consumption of fast food contributes to such incidents. Chow mein leads to hormonal imbalance evoking an urge to indulge in such acts,” he said. Several khap panchayats tried their hands at giving a solution to the rape epidemic, including lowering the age of marriage for girls to 16, because they apparently think that married women don’t get raped. Also, they feel early marriages keep women’s sexual desires in check. How that would deter rapists, of course, is a question that remains unanswered, at least by the panchayats.
The problem doesn’t stop there. According to Haryana Congress president Phool Chand Mullana, the increase in rapes in the state is due to a “political conspiracy”. Not to be outdone, Dharamveer Goyal the Congress-I spokesman for the state went on to say that 90% of rapes were in fact consensual. Then there’s West Bengal chief minister Mamata Bannerjee who says that rapes happen because men and women interact more freely now than even before.
Changing these mindsets may not be possible, but attempts have been made to at least change legislation. Six months ago, the Union Cabinet introduced the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, 2012 in Parliament. According to this bill, “The punishment for sexual assault will be for a minimum of seven years which may extend to imprisonment for life.”
However, several activists say that draconian laws in fact create more problems than they solve. “The popular idea is that severe punishment deters crime, but the fact is that very severe punishments in fact deter conviction. The more severe the punishment, the higher the evidentiary standards and the harder it is to actually sentence someone,” says Dr Swarna Rajagopalan, Managing Trustee of The Prajnya Trust, an NGO working on issues related to peace, justice and security. “That means that more people get off scot-free, actually.”
However, other activists argue that legal procedures must keep pace with changing dynamics. Apart from increased punishments, several sociologists have been campaigning for fast track courts to deal with rape cases, a sensitised police force and in-camera hearings for many decades now.
But ultimately, it is change in the mindset of the people that is the need of the day. “This generation of parents has to push for a change in mindsets that needs to begin at home. We need to bring up our boys to become men who will respect women, and who know that a woman’s no means a no, and not a perhaps, a maybe, or a yes,” says Marnal.
The Delhi gangrape has certainly created a storm in the Indian parliament. For a change, the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha saw members of all parties speaking with a single voice while they raised concerns over repeated incidents of rape in the national capital, the responsibility for the law and order of which lies directly with the Union Home Ministry.
But this time, it seems the Indian people are not taking the politicians at their word. As this story goes into print, the Indian capital has seen massive protests that have caused nine metro stations closing down, resulting in complete chaos in the city. Violent clashes between protestors and the police have seen the use of water cannons, lathi-charges and tear gas. At least one person, a local journalist, has been shot dead by police. The protests have prompted a “deeply saddened” Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh to appeal for calm, but he has also come under criticism for appealing a week too late. Over a bloody weekend on the 22 and 23 December, more than a 100 people were injured, with India Gate looking like a battleground. But the question that remains to be answered is whether these protests will be able to galvanize a nation into making concerted efforts for a lasting change or not. Will India be, at the end of all this, a safer place for women? Everyone waits and watches for that answer.
If history is anything to go by, these voices will go mute in the course of time… until the next incident makes its way to the headlines. “We need to think about gender-based and sexual violence all the time and not just when something horrible happens,” says Dr Rajagopalan.
As I write this, another gang-rape in Delhi has made news on 21 December. A 40 year old woman was gang-raped by three men, not aboard public transport, but within the four walls of her home, after being forced to drink a spiked drink.
As I write this, I am aware that a woman is raped every 22 minutes in India. 24,206 rape cases were reported in 2012, showing a 10 per cent rise from 2010. Last year, every third victim was a child. More than 600 rape cases have been reported in New Delhi alone this year, according to government records, accounting for 30.3 per cent of total rape cases.
If these statistics do not shame the average Indian and the political leaders, then there is little hope for women in the world’s largest democracy.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, December 30th, 2012.
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