Delhi Gang-Rape Underscores Rising Sexual Violence Against Indian Women

 @Gooch700 on December 17 2012 11:29 AM
New Delhi
A combination picture shows the India Gate in New Delhi before (top) and during Earth Hour on Saturday. REUTERS

A horrific gang rape of a young woman on a bus in India on Sunday underscores the rising tide of sexual violence females face in the country, particularly in the capital of Delhi.

According to reports in Indian media, citing Delhi police accounts, a 23-year-old Indian medical student who was traveling with a male companion on a luxury private bus was sexually assaulted by at least four men, including perhaps bus company staff.

The pair, who were returning home from an evening at the cinema, were beaten, stripped and tossed out of the vehicle and are now at the Safdarjung Hospital in Delhi, where the woman is listed in critical condition, suffering from head injuries, cuts, abrasions and sexual assault wounds. Indian media reported that she was placed on a ventilator with injuries in her stomach and intestines.

D.K. Mishra, a relative of the young man who was attacked, told Indian media: "Five to seven people started harassing her. The boy protested and made every effort to come to her aid, but some people caught hold of him. Then three to four people took her and gang-raped her in the cabin of the bus.”

Rapes and kidnapping are all too common in Delhi, one of the most dangerous cities in India for the fairer sex.

"This is a shocking incident. I hope that the guilty are punished for the heinous crime," said Delhi's Women and Child Development Minister Kiran Walia in a statement.

Walia added that the government may consider installing CCTV cameras inside public transport.

The chairwoman of the National Commission for Women, Mamata Sharma, warned: "Such incidents are increasing in Delhi. Police and government should be really alert.”

On Monday, Chhaya Sharma, a senior police official, called for the public to find the identity of the bus and the attackers.

"The stringent actions required will be taken, not just in this incident, but precautionary measures will also be taken to prevent such incidents from happening in the future," said the chief minister of Delhi, Sheila Dikshit.

According to India’s National Crime Records Bureau, 568 rape cases were reported in New Delhi last year, although the actual number is believed to be significantly higher.

"If women are not safe here, then where ever in the country you can imagine a woman be safe? No parent can sleep in peace if this is the kind of situation which is developing in our capital," said Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research, according to Channel News Asia.

The opposition right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party blamed the Delhi government.

"This incident will be replaced with another incident after [a] few days. I believe that Delhi's law and order and security issues are handled carelessly by the government," said BJP spokesperson Muqhtar Abbas Naqvi.

The rise of violence against Indian women is a complex and very troubling matter for the rising economic superpower – and Delhi is the very epicenter of this epidemic.

Delhi accounts for an astounding one-quarter of all rapes officially recorded in the vast country, according to data compiled by NCRB.

Delhi also leads India in all incidents of crimes against women, including rape, molestation, dowry harassment and domestic violence, Jagori's Safe Delhi Campaign reported.

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, 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.

Anita Raj, a professor in the division of global public health in the department of medicine at the University of California at San Diego, confirmed 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 damaging 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 and 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.

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