This article is a brief reflection on India, rape, women and men. It touches on justice, injustice, endemic atrocities committed in peace time, and courage.
Regrettably, the subject is vast and the article is short. It follows another case of a gang of men sexually violating a woman in India. This time the media angle is that it was ordered by a tribal headman. More on that lower down.
In India, rapes are reported, on average, literally every few minutes. Reported, that is; the statistics can only approximately address the real regularity of rapes. To be clear: many more of them happen than are ever reported.
As violent news seizes attention, the worse it is, and the more frequently incidents of the same kind appear, the more we wonder, ‘why does this keep happening?’
Terrorist car bombings in Iraq, for example, are in this worst-of-the-worst category of news. This and suicide attacks causing many deaths and mutilations we equate with quasi war zones. Since most of us have no experience of war, it is difficult to imagine ourselves in the positions of the people experiencing the horror of war.
Rapes, however, don’t only happen in war. Also in that worst-of-the-worst category, they are mostly a reality of ‘peace’.
A rape may not be publicised partly because societies tend to hide or ignore such serial acts that inflict harm, although the authorities’ hand is forced when a person has been murdered. Whether the act is hidden or reported, the victim and those close to the victim rarely experience peace in the aftermath of the crime, and the trauma can stay for their entire remaining lifetimes.
Whether the country is a democracy or not, in India justice eludes many, activists say. They insist that justice must be preventive, possibly pre-emptive, in the sense that offences must be talked about openly and must not go unpunished.
The latest big story about rape in India involves an accusation that 13 men violated a woman on the orders of a tribal leader, to punish her for a relationship with a man who is not of the same tribe.
She is in critical condition in hospital. The accused have been arrested by the national police.
The family of the victim’s boyfriend paid a fine levied on him arbitrarily. The victim’s family did not have the money. Initial reports did not say if the family of the boyfriend offered to pay the fine demanded of her. For each, it was 25,000 rupees, equivalent to just under 300 euros.
When she could not pay, she was sentenced to rape.
India as a nation has acquired an image of attitudes towards women that almost defies comprehension. In the world view, given the outrage both in India and outside it, a picture is building that men in that country are committing atrocities – by definition of the cruelty which is inflicted. But another picture emerges also, rights organisations say.
They say that because of the regularity of these crimes of sexual violence and the number of the perpetrators going unpunished – also because of a failure to make people aware of the wrong being done – India’s institutions contribute to the scourge. The critics say that, by default, India’s elected authorities and its bureaucracy are condoning crimes — that rape has in effect come to be an ‘accepted’ practice.
Data compiled by the UN prompts further reflection.
Without setting aside the physical and emotional impact of the crime which leaves many of those who have been raped impaired to varying degrees, here is a look at some comparative numbers.
Where do you think the rate of rapes per population of 100,000 is higher, in Sweden or India?
The UN says the incidence was 1.7 in India in 2006 (only slightly above that of Canada in 2008). In Sweden it is more than 53.
Troubling? Certainly. Now consider that the population of India is more than 123 million times that of Sweden.
The 100,000 ratio for the UK is 22.3 and for the USA it is 28.6. In Spain it is 5.5 and Iceland 21.6. This (2008) data is based on police-recorded offences. Some countries do not compile figures, or do so only periodically, not every year.
Also consider how the police are trusted in these countries. Women have also been raped by the police in the past (as by other people in positions of trust), and also murdered in police stations. Last year, a 14-year-old was raped and killed inside a police station in Uttar Pradesh.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime gives its definition of rape as ‘sexual intercourse without valid consent’.
India’s National Crime Records Bureau recorded 16,000 reported cases of rape in 2001. In 2012, 25,000 cases.
These records are general, not distinguishing gang rape.
In 2012, a student on a bus in Delhi was gang-raped to death.
Laws were tightened but opposition politicians said the government was not sending a strong enough signal condemning male violence towards women.
The increase in reports of Western tourists being gang-raped in India further highlights the climate of fear and insecurity there, and the mentality of the perpetrators. It also shows numerous exceptions to the majority of cases which are committed by someone the victim knows.
In the latest case to receive international attention, the woman was gang-raped by members of her own tribe, on the orders of tribal elders.
The order the men were given, according to the complaint from the woman’s family, was: “go enjoy the girl and have fun.”
Reports gave her age as 20. The age of her partner was not given, nor the ages of the men accused of raping her.
Other Western reports of rapes often ignore men’s ages, too, but give the woman’s age.
Some reports say ‘young woman’, even in the case of the 51-year-old Danish tourist recently gang-raped in New Delhi.
The relevance of age other than merely factual is questionable; however, an objective report would require a general application of the principle of stating ages.
Western media reports note Indian newspaper articles on the rapes of babies, children and the elderly.
Many cases never get to court.
In Birbhum, West Bengal, the family bringing the complaint about tribal gang-rape as a ‘punishment’ for ‘falling in love’ said the attack happened on Monday night.
They told the police about it on Wednesday night.
Social stigma scars survivors and families.
The stigma on India itself is growing.