India's emergence as an economic superpower has been accompanied by a disturbing and unexpected phenomenon -- an apparent increase in sexual assaults and rapes of women.
Nowhere has this dark development been more pronounced than in India's teeming capital city of New Delhi, which accounts for an astounding one-quarter of all rapes officially recorded in the vast country, according to an Indo-Asian News Service article based on data compiled by the National Crime Records Bureau, or NCRB.
Delhi leads India in all incidents of crimes against women, including rape, molestation, dowry harassment, and domestic violence, Jagori's Safe Delhi Campaign reported.
Delhi accounted for 15.4 percent of the 23,983 cases of urban crime reported against women in 2009, according to a Sunday Guardian story based on NCRB data.
The capital also was the site of 23.8 percent of rape cases, 38.9 percent of kidnapping and abduction cases, 15.2 percent of dowry deaths, and 14.1 percent of molestation cases.
A women's-rights organization, Jagori stated: “Women in Delhi face high levels of violence ... Women are ... unsafe on Delhi streets, running the daily risk of harassment, attack, assault, rape, and murder. On the other hand, they do not seem to be very safe at home either -- official statistics show that, in Delhi as elsewhere, most crimes against women are committed by close relatives within the four walls of the home.”
Last year, Indian media reported on the particularly horrific experience of a woman in Delhi who was raped by an older relative. When she escaped his house and hailed a taxi, the cabbie and two of his friends then raped her again.
An Al Jazeera video documentary indicated that in Delhi, a city of some 20 million, 80 percent of women said they have been at least sexually harassed. If accurate, this figure would mean that at least 5 million women in the city alone have had this unpleasant experience (or worse).
Moreover, an astonishing four-fifths of all women in Delhi fear for their safety on the streets, especially at night.
However, the actual number of rapes in Delhi -- and India as a whole -- is likely to be dramatically higher than suggested by published statistics.
A major problem with assessing the true rape situation in India lies with the fact that statistics are highly distorted, inaccurate, and even contradictory. Aside from the reluctance of most rape victims to press charges against perpetrators, government statistics cannot be fully trusted.
For example, Jagori stated that while almost one-half (45 percent) of women in Delhi say they have been stalked by men in public, only a scant 0.8 percent of these women even bothered to report such harassment to the police.
Almost three-fifths (58 percent) of women who have been so abused said they didn’t even consider notifying police because they felt the cops wouldn’t do anything or would blame the women themselves for the assaults perpetrated on their bodies.
Also, it is reasonable to assume that educated Indian women are more willing to report rapes than are uneducated, rural, poor women -- who fear both the authorities and the repercussions of a rape allegation.
Moreover, while most rapes in India that are reported to police occur in urban areas, there are untold numbers of sexual assaults in rural villages that are never recorded because police either do not exist there or they are hopelessly corrupt or incompetent.
Consequently, rape and crime statistics in India are vague.
Nonetheless, Anita Raj, a professor in the division of global public health in the department of medicine at the University of California at San Diego, said that crimes against women in India have indeed been steadily rising over the past several years.
This view is echoed by women's organizations and rights activists across India, citing anecdotal evidence.
“I feel this [increase in rape statistics] may be attributable in part to increased reporting and convictions,” Raj said. “There is greater support for rape victims in India than ever before, but simultaneously, the stigmatization of rape victims [including the negative effects on the likelihood of future marriage] remains all too often the norm.”
It is unclear why Delhi has witnessed a far worse epidemic of rape and sexual assault than megacity peers such as Mumbai and Calcutta (which also boast huge populations and a mass migration of people from the rural hinterlands).
Ranjana Kumari, director of Delhi's Center for Social Research, told Britain's Guardian newspaper that one reason why the capital has seen such an extraordinary amount of violent crime is that it has endured chaotic growth in the absence of sober planning, noting that only 37 percent of the city was ever planned.
The rest is ... slums, villages, with no proper lighting or development, Kumari said. There are many pockets of crime.
Jagori cited a number of factors that make Delhi unsafe for women: dark or poorly lighted streets; derelict parks and empty lots; badly maintained public spaces; inadequate signage; lack of public toilets; poor public transport, as well as rude bus drivers and conductors; insufficient presence and unresponsive-aggressive attitudes of police and civic authorities; isolation from neighbors and the lack of community life; traditional notions of privacy and refusal of neighbors-police to intervene in situations of domestic violence; a macho culture; and a general lack of respect for women’s rights.
However, such conditions exist across much of urban India -- thus, there must be other factors behind Delhi's particularly virulent atmosphere of brutality against women.
Al Jazeera contended part of this apparent escalation in violence against women may be attributed to the fact that in past 15 years, the number of women in Delhi's workforce has more than doubled. As a result, women have become more visible in public, and many are dressed in modern Western attire, having chucked traditional clothing.
This would suggest that part of the violence stems from men’s resentment of changing gender roles and the erosion of cultural and traditional norms.
Indeed, as India's economy modernizes, more women pursue higher education, get jobs, marry later in life, and have fewer children.
For the millions of Indian men who haven't benefited from the buoyant economy and remain trapped in poverty, the sight of successful, independent women is anathema.
An activist named Urvashi Butalia told Indian media: Men have started feeling threatened and resent women coming out into the public space. This feeling has started taking a violent turn.
But this argument doesn't account for the fact that most rape victims in India are under the age of 21 (and at least 25 percent are under the age of 18). Similarly, more than one-half (56 percent) of the culprits are under the age of 25, suggesting a wave of violence from youths who are oblivious to socioeconomic trends.
It also fails to explain the significant number of rapes and assaults involving middle-class and affluent victims and perpetrators. The University of California's Raj also noted that, as is the case in the U.S. and other Western nations, most Indian rapists are friends, neighbors, or even relatives of the victims.
“The vast majority of rapes are perpetrated by an individual known to the victim,” she said.
Citing official data, Raj pointed out only 4 percent of men arrested for rape were strangers to their victims, while the other 96 percent were known to the victims or their families.
“This really belies this belief that rapes have increased because women and girls are more mobile in societies,” she said.
Raj proposed that Delhi may account for a disproportionate amount of violent crime due to the dominant conservative and repressive attitudes in the rural areas of northern India: Many people from these regions have crowded into Delhi in recent decades and brought their chauvinistic ideas with them into a wholly alien, urban environment.
In an interview with OneWorld South Asia, Kalpana Viswanath of the Gender Inclusive Cities Program explained: “There is also the whole idea that [the] north India patriarchy puts more restrictions on women. The ancient purdah system, still prevalent in parts of [Delhi], categorizes women ... as someone without a good character. The whole idea is that if a women is on her own she could be an easy game.”
Quite often, in rural India, as in Pakistan and Arab societies, the woman is frequently blamed for being raped.
A teenage girl named Umang Sabarwal told Agence France Presse before a protest in Delhi: “In India, no matter what we wear, even if we are covered head to toe in a sari or a burqa, we get molested and raped. If we are victimized, it is justified by saying we asked for it.”
Public transport and roadsides are particularly dangerous for Indian women.
“[A] survey showed 42 percent of women were harassed while waiting for public transport. We have suggested [to the authorities] to ensure these areas are not isolated, said Viswanath, according to the Times of India.
Another survey by Jagori and U.N. Habitat revealed that about 70 percent of women were harassed on the roadside and 50 percent were harassed on public transport.
In response, some Indian cities have reserved all-female buses and train carriages to reduce acts of sexual violence.
Another problem lies with women's fear of or lack of confidence in the police and courts.
Kareena B. Thengamam, a representative of the National Commission for Women, told Indian media: “The main thing is that [rapists] are not being convicted. Unless a girl dies, men don’t feel there will be consequences.”
Indian media reported on a gang-rape case where the court released three defendants with a fine of 50,000 rupees ($940) each and 3-1/2 years already served, despite legal requirements calling for gang rapists to be sentenced to a minimum of 10 years in prison.
Complicating the discussion of rape in India is the lack of reliable data: Are incidents of rape truly increasing, or are the numbers getting bigger simply because more women -- especially in cities like Delhi -- are willing to report them to the police?
The University of California's Raj said that, despite the many media reports of rape and sexual assault in India, the situation appear to be far more dire in North America and Southern Africa.
According to the 2006 data in the International Statistics on Crime and Justice, there were almost 50 rapes per 100,000 people in North America and 40 per 100,000 people in Southern Africa. The South Asian region (including India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh) has a comparable figure of about 4. Some of this discrepancy may be related to South Asia’s huge population, as well as to under-reported crime statistics.
Still, even taking these factors into consideration, countries like South Africa, Swaziland, and Jamaica are far more dangerous for women than is India.
“I would say that although the number of rape incidents is growing and the proportion of convictions is down, India still fares better than many nations on this issue,” Raj said. “However, if India continues to go in this direction, they could become more similar to these other countries.”
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.