Violence against women 'a social tinderbox waiting for a spark'

The gang-rape and death of a young woman is the match that has ignited nationwide anger over daily sexual attacks on women in India. But will anything change?
Protesters try to break through a police cordon during a demonstration over the death of a young woman who was recently gang-raped on a moving bus in New Delhi.
Protesters try to break through a police cordon during a demonstration over the death of a young woman who was recently gang-raped on a moving bus in New Delhi.

NEW DELHI // Across India yesterday, thousands of people lit candles, held prayer meetings and marched through cities and towns to protest the gang rape of a physiotherapy student and mourn her death over the weekend.

While the nationwide scope of the outrage over the sexual assault has struck some Indians as surprising, others say the problem of violence against women was a social tinderbox, waiting only for a spark to set it alight.

The actions of six men on board a chartered bus on December 16 in New Delhi, it turned out, were the match.

"The anger has been building up for a while now, what with everyday reports of sexual violence against women," Urvashi Butalia, the founder of Kali for Women, a feminist publishing house, told The National. "It just needed a catalyst to explode."

Yet after the shock of what happened aboard that bus wears off, it is far from certain whether the legal system and the long-standing cultural attitudes towards women that gave rise to the attack will change.

It is a measure of how inured Indians had become to the issue of sexual violence that India's media, with no hint of outrage, has dubbed Delhi the country's "rape capital."

Crime statistics partly bear out that image.

According to Delhi police, the crime rate increased 4 per cent from 2010 to 2011. During the same period, the number of reported rape cases jumped by 12 per cent, from 507 to 568.

Some 661 rape cases had already been reported to the police in Delhi through December 15 of this year, police say - a 16.3 per cent rise over 2011.

In contrast, 219 rape cases were reported through 2011 in Mumbai, up from 192 the previous year, according to data from Mumbai police.

Nevertheless, Delhi's unsavoury reputation for crime, relative to its population, is not entirely justified.

While Delhi and its 16.7 million people have the most crimes in absolute terms, it ranked 26 out of India's 53 largest cities in crimes per capita, registering 289 crimes per 100,000 residents in 2011. Topping the crime rate rankings was Kochi, in the state of Kerala, which registered 1,636 crimes per 100,000 residents.

Despite this more nuanced statistical portrait of crime in Delhi, the city cannot shake its perception among Indians as the country's most unsafe city.

"In Mumbai, I would not hesitate to walk out on to a street at 3am and hail a taxi. In Delhi, that is unthinkable. I would never do that," Ms Butalia said.

Unlike Mumbai, Delhi is a larger and less dense city, she noted, "with some parts being well lit, others not, some parts being better serviced by public transportation, and some parts being more densely populated than others."

Kavitha Krishnan, the secretary of the All India Progressive Women's Association, joined the street protests in Delhi after the assault two weeks ago.

Part of the problem facing women in Delhi, she said, stems from the lack of political will on the part of Indian authorities to prevent intimidation and victimisation of women in public places. The anger was not just against sexual violence but also against "the rampant, everyday harassment a woman faces."

"Even a high-profile politician said that just because India got freedom at midnight does not mean that women should be out on the streets at night," she said. "It is this sort of attitude that has angered the young, both men and women."

Such convictions about the proper place of women in Indian society are widely shared by India's politicians.

Abhijit Mukherjee, a member of parliament and the son of the Indian president Pranab Mukherjee, said in a statement last week that women were joining the anti-rape protests purely because it was fashionable to do so.

"Where is this moralising coming from?" an exasperated Ms Krishnan asked. "There has been an extensive politics of misogyny and moralising that has been the core politics of some parties. There is great tolerance for misogyny, and it is all now coming into its own."

Other factors may go beyond policing and politics to more systemic issues, such as the gender ratio in Indian society.

In a chapter in their new book Indianomix, the economists Vivek Dehejia and Rupa Subramanya point out that a skewed sex ratio, where men outnumber women, might be one of the factors that contributes to violent gender crimes such as rapes.

"One could say that unattached, angry young men, roaming around, tend to become violent," Mr Dehejia, who teaches at Carleton University in Canada, told The National.

He warned that while it was "difficult to establish a causal relationship between an adverse sex ratio and higher rates of violent crime against women," such a sex ratio would point to deeper problems of misogyny.

A misogynistic culture that tended to practice sex-selective abortions or female infanticide, preferring sons over daughters, would also tend to be more tolerant of violence towards its women, he said.

Mr Dehejia agreed with Mr Gupta, the former Delhi Police commissioner, that more rapes were being properly reported to the police.

"There's always a social stigma associated with rape, but new research does show that, as women become more politically and economically empowered, they're more willing to come forward and report these crimes."

Published: December 31, 2012 04:00 AM


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