Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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Sexual Violence in India

by Isobel Coleman
January 2, 2013

Women hold placards as they march during a rally organized by Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit (unseen) protesting for justice and security for women, in New Delhi January 2, 2013. Women hold placards as they march during a rally organized by Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit (unseen) protesting for justice and security for women in New Delhi on January 2, 2013 (Adnan Abidi/Courtesy Reuters).


Shocked by a brutal rape case that has gripped the country, India is going through some soul-searching about its shameful mistreatment of women. Riot police lined the streets of Delhi the past few days to calm protesters who gathered in outrage as the body of the 23 year-old rape victim returned from Singapore where she had been transferred for emergency treatment. She suffered severe internal injuries after being gang-raped, beaten, and thrown naked from the bus she and her boyfriend tragically got on after seeing a movie on December 16. She died on Saturday and protesters have demanded the death penalty for the rapists.

Rape happens everywhere, but India is a particularly tough place to be female. Over 40 percent of the child marriages in the world take place in India. Sex selective abortions occur there at staggering rates. In 2011, the gender ratio was at its most imbalanced since India’s 1947 independence: among children six years old or under, there were only 914 girls per every 1,000 boys. Increases in wealth and literacy have only exacerbated the problem of female feticide.

Sexual harassment of women—known in India by its euphemism, “eve-teasing”—is widespread and includes behaviors ranging from lewd remarks to physical assault. In a recent Hindustan Times survey of 356 New Delhi women who take public transport, 78 percent of them reported having been sexually harassed in the past year.

According to the New York Times, rape in India has risen about 25 percent over the past few years; increased reporting partly explains that rise; but some have speculated that it is also driven by the realities of a modernizing society that brings women into public spaces and professional life in greater numbers, phenomena that some young men view as threatening. Interestingly, a 1960 Time magazine article describing the “eve-teasing” problem also cited a society in transition as a contributing factor.

While 24,206 instances of rape were reported in 2011, one nonprofit leader estimates from her field work that only ten percent of rape cases see the light of day. Rape is a crime in India, but when women do come to the police with a rape charge, the authorities frequently encourage them not to file their complaints. Last week, a 17 year-old girl in India killed herself by ingesting poison. She had been gang-raped in November, and when she brought the case to the police, they urged her to withdraw the complaint, encouraging her instead to marry one of her rapists or figure out a monetary settlement with them.

Despite the laws on the books, violence against women is so lightly condemned that over the past five years, India’s political parties have nominated 260 candidates waiting to go on trial for various crimes against women. A handful of state- and national-level lawmakers currently in office in India face charges of rape or other crimes against women.

India’s current public outrage might begin to chip away at this culture of impunity around rape. The Home Secretary has pledged more security on buses, and several fast track courts to adjudicate cases of violence against women, including the recent bus assault, are being set up; this program should be expanded throughout the country.

Such procedural improvements are welcome, but India needs a broader cultural shift that revalues the lives of girls and women. Appalling levels of female feticide, female illiteracy, child marriage, and condoned violence against women are the harsh reality that Indian women confront, and unless addressed, will hold the country back in the 21st century.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by betsy teutsch

    One would think that the demographic deficit of females would give women more value, in a classic supply/demand way. But it seems like it exacerbates male aggression and endangers women, and likely drives sex trafficking. Better policing will help, but there needs to be a lot of work not just with women to defend their rights, but to retrain Indian men.

  • Posted by Rashmee Roshan Lall

    India greeted the first dawn of 2013 in mourning for the anonymous 23-year-old woman who died from injuries sustained during a brutal gang rape on a bus in Delhi. In a sombre series of announcements, the Indian army announced that it had cancelled all official celebrations, various Bollywood stars said there was nothing to celebrate and even the famously reclusive Sonia Gandhi, president of India’s governing Congress party, said she planned no revelries to ring in the new year. It was meant to be an empathetic public statement of grief for the raped woman. But who was the semi-official empathy meant to reach? Was it India’s enraged middle class, which has been protesting furiously against rape and sexual violence for a fortnight? Was it international opinion, which has added deep-seated misogyny to the laundry list of problems that hold India back?

    The ostentatious public sacrifice of New Year’s Eve parties by the great and the good is no more than a symbolic gesture. Any judgement on its power or pointlessness must be reserved until the Indian government’s promised measures to change women’s reality take effect.n its public display of grief and well-publicised flurry of activity – setting up commissions of inquiry, fast-track courts, a help line for women in distress in Delhi – there is little indication that the Indian establishment has mapped out the contours of the problem.
    n 1978, there was public outrage (but no candlelit vigils or impromptu shrines) when a middle-class teenage brother and sister were abducted in Delhi, the girl raped and both killed. But the Sanjay and Geeta Chopra case changed nothing about the way India dealt with rape. In fact, that tragic crime is only remembered today for the two bravery awards instituted in their names.

  • Posted by Isobel Coleman

    Sustained public outrage is just a first, but important, step in driving cultural change, but based on the many “blame the victim” comments coming from Indian officials, it’s clear that the outrage is still not consistent.

  • Posted by Isobel Coleman

    Agreed. Men are of course part of the problem and the solution. There is some intriguing research indicating that educated girls in India now command a higher bride price/lower dowry – which speaks to your comment about supply/demand. Over time, the deficit of women due to female feticide will correct itself (we’re already seeing that in urban areas in China) but it takes a long time and occurs at enormous cost: millions of girls are aborted along the way.

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