by Priyanka Bhardwaj
- India -
Last year’s World Economic Forum study on gender parity gave India a dismal ranking: 114th out of 134 nations. Only 77% of women are literate and just 23% are employed. UNICEF’s 2009 State of the World’s Children report found that not only do 40% of the world’s child marriages occur in India, but of its total contraception, 75% is done through sterilization with India’s women bearing the brunt of the procedure in 95% of cases.
Of equally troubling concern, official statistics point to rape as the fastest growing crime in India, even when compared to murder, robbery and kidnapping. Despite assurances from law enforcement, the federal Home Ministry's National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) states that every 30 minutes an Indian woman is raped. Since 1971 when rape cases were first recorded officially, the NCRB has registered a 678% increase in the crime.
The response given by the state’s Deputy Director of Tourism, Palmela Mascarenhas, to India’s Mail Today certainly fanned the flames of many discussions. “You can’t blame the locals,” she said, “they have never seen such women. Foreign tourists must maintain a certain degree of modesty in their clothing. Walking on the beaches half-naked (in bikinis) is bound to titillate the senses.”
Lawyer and activist, Deepti Singh, blames the Indian patriarchal society for spreading a mindset of “victim-blaming”. She argues that the Russian girl was not wearing a bikini when she was lured away from her mother by an accomplice. Plus she says, “If clothing provokes (men), how come women in purdah get raped?”
Like many, educator Abhas Bhatnagar feels that a number of factors are at work. He thinks increasing media coverage and a tendency towards sensational reporting to capture national eyeballs is partly to blame. But he also thinks that the growing number of educated, aware and empowered citizens is bringing more cases to light. Like Singh, he finds another reason to fault the logic of attributing rape to provocation. “[The idea of] hormones leading to uncontrollable sexual atrocities is branding male-sexuality as unmanageable and generalizing that all males are potential molesters,” he says.
And yet, many tourist guidebooks on India suggest that female travelers wear loose, long clothes as a way of avoiding unwelcome attention. There have even been cases where college principals have revised the women's dress code.
Given the patriarchal mindset sweeping largely across all castes and classes of India, the power imbalance between genders is manifesting in these incidents of rape as acts of sexual, physical and emotional aggression. The fault also can be seen in the inadequacies of law enforcement and legal machinery.
In just the past few months media and public fury converged on the Ruchika Girhotra molestation case when the CBI court (the top federal investigation agency) meted out tepid punishment on the culprit, a senior police officer belonging to the Haryana state cadre.
On August 12, 1990, Ruchika, a 14-year-old budding tennis player was molested by the highly placed S P S Rathore, who subsequently used his clout to harass the girl’s family and scuttle investigations. Such was Rathore’s influence that filing a First Information Report (FIR) – a basic written record prepared by police to set in motion criminal justice proceedings – became impossible for the victim and her family. Hounded, tortured and severely depressed, Ruchika committed suicide in 1993.
Shockingly, despite being under investigation, Rathore was promoted to State Police Chief/Director General of Police and also awarded the President’s medal for meritorious service. On December 22, 2009 when Rathore walked out of the courtroom grinning from ear to ear after a verdict that sentenced him only to six months of jail and Rs 1,000 (less than $20) fine, many found the situation simply unbearable.
Then there is the grim reality of rape and forced marriages in Jammu and Kashmir. Officials say that hundreds of girls in villages have disappeared and are feared kidnapped by militants. There are also the innumerable sexual infringements or violations of female decency from Eve Teasing, indecent gazes, pinching, and vulgar comments – especially in busy public spaces and on public transport – that remain unaddressed by India’s society. “Emerging India” may boast of a woman President and leaders such as Sonia Gandhi, but it is still largely a man’s domain where a woman’s testimony does not hold much sway.
Mental health counselor, Meena Kapur, feels that the numbers speak volumes about the prevalence of India’s collective silence: only one in 69 cases are ever reported and only 20% are convicted.
She offers a two-part solution: the long-term approach requires increasing women’s participation and representation in India’s legal, economic, political, and religious spheres so that they can punish the perpetrators of sexual crimes; the short term encourages society to support victims in freely reporting the crime and demanding a proactive approach from law enforcement.
Few women muster the courage to lodge a FIR, fearing public shame, family dishonor, a gender-insensitive police force, the rigors of medical exams to prove that the rape did happen, and repeated cross-examination in court. One is reminded of the case of Imrana who village elders decreed should be married to her rapist. Nation-wide public and media outrage and Imrana’s refusal to accept the verdict finally delivered justice.
Though there have been some amendments in Indian law (including criminal liability in the marital domain, sexual act with a minor even after consent, and treatment of rape cases against women despite their sexual history), Sumita Ranganathan, an activist in New Delhi says that change is not forthcoming. “Although Ruchika’s case had stimulated a flurry of action within the establishment, there still remains reluctance on the part of state governments to institute reforms mandated by the Supreme Court.”
Ultimately, it is only through the combination of efforts – of the judiciary, legislature and executive branches of government, the media and society – that India’s place in the domain of gender sensitivity will be salvaged. So long as the physical and mental security of women – whether in the womb, at home or in public – eludes Indian citizens and foreign visitors on its soil, India’s run to occupy the higher echelons of global economic and social progress will be compromised.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Priyanka Bhardwaj is an independent journalist and risk analyst based in Gurgaon/New Delhi, India who has covered diverse issues related to the Indian subcontinent for seven years. Her work has been published in Asia Sentinel, Opinion Asia, Siliconeer Magazine, Asia Times, and Business Times (Singapore) among others. Her area of interest spans marginalized social strata, women, children and climate change. Fluent in more than 8 Indian languages, Priyanka is writing a book about her travels and experiences on the Indian subcontinent.