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India’s Women: The Mixed Truth

Magnum Photos
Women shielding themselves from a dust storm, Rajasthan, India, 1983; photograph by Steve McCurry from his book Untold: The Stories Behind the Photographs, which includes fourteen of his photo stories from India, Afghanistan, Cambodia, and other countries, along with essays about his work and ephemera from his personal archive. It has just been published by Phaidon.

“I am not a boy, I am a girl,” wrote a twenty-one-year-old woman in Delhi, called Jyoti, who was studying at a medical college to be a physiotherapist. This was in a text message sent in December 2010 to a twenty-six-year-old man who worked in information technology and who had initially taken Jyoti to be a man. They met, and what began as a casual communication became a close friendship.

Two years later, on December 16, 2012, after they had seen a film, The Life of Pi, Jyoti was gang-raped with extreme brutality, and the man was severely beaten as he tried to protect her. They had been tricked into boarding a bus that seemed to be going their way and that had offered them a ride. It was a closed bus with darkened windows in which five determined rapists were waiting for their prey, with their impatience heightened, it is alleged, by the drugs they had taken. The battered bodies of the abused pair were dropped off on a lonely street, and by the time Jyoti received medical attention, she was on her way to death from the injuries, despite specialized medical care in Delhi, and later in Singapore.

The gang rape, including the violence accompanying it, not only got headlines in every serious Indian newspaper, it received continuous coverage around the clock on radio, television, and cable channels. It also led to large-scale public protests and demonstrations that continued for many days in Delhi as well as in other Indian cities, with agitated crowds—men and women—much larger than any seen before in protests of this kind. The insecurity of women, including their vulnerability to rape and abuse, became overnight a national issue in a way it had never been.

Public anger at gender inequality in India must be seen as an important—and long-overdue—social development, and it can certainly help in remedying the persistent inequalities from which Indian women suffer. It is, however, very important to understand the nature of female disadvantage in India, which can take many different forms. If the lack of safety of women is one aspect of it, the old phenomenon of “boy preference” in family decisions is surely another. Boy preference relates closely to the deep-rooted problem of what has been called “missing women,” which refers to the shortfall of the actual number of women from the number we would expect to see, given the size of the male population, and the female–male ratios that could be expected if there were symmetry in the treatment of women and men. There is, moreover, strong evidence that the economic and social options open to women are significantly fewer than those available to men; and going beyond women’s well-being, we have reason to ask also about women’s limited role in society and their ability to act independently, and how their initiatives and actions influence the lives of men as well as women, and boys as well as girls.

Numbers and Insecurity

One of the positive consequences of the agitation following the barbaric incident of December 16 has been to draw attention both to the prevalence of sexual brutality and rape in India, and to the failure of the media to report on it seriously, thereby limiting public discussion and the likelihood of social change. Even though Indians buy more newspapers every day than any other nation, the reporting of sexual assaults and sexual harassment had been quite rare in the widely circulated papers. It is, therefore, impressive and encouraging that newspapers in India, smarting from intense criticism of the negligence in their coverage, rapidly reinvented themselves as rape-reporting journals, and many of them have been devoting several pages every day to reports of rapes gathered together from all the different parts of India. This dramatic change is certainly a welcome development, but it can be asked whether the ongoing news reporting is well aimed and as helpful for public discussion as it could be.

How frequent is rape in India? If there are pages and pages of reports of rapes from across the country in the newspapers, the incidence must be high. There are, in fact, good reasons to believe that the majority of rapes go unreported in India, and the actual incidence of rape may be much higher (some estimates suggest that it is larger by a factor of five or more) than what gets recorded by the police. Based on the news coverage of rape across India, it has been argued, with some plausibility, that India has an extraordinarily high frequency of rape. To what extent is this the right way of thinking about India’s problem? Rape and brutality against women are not exactly unknown around the world. One question is whether rape is relatively more common in India than elsewhere, despite the increased attention it is now getting in Indian news reports.

In fact, if we go by the comparative statistics of reported rape, India has one of the lowest levels of rape in the world. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime found the incidence of rape in India for 2010 to be 1.8 per 100,000 people, compared with, for example, 27.3 in the US, 28.8 in the UK, 63.5 in Sweden, and 120.0 in South Africa. The number of recorded rapes in India is certainly a substantial underestimate, but even if we take five times—or ten times—that figure, the corrected and enlarged estimates of rapes would still be substantially lower in India than in the US, the UK, Sweden, or South Africa (even with the assumption that there is no underreporting in these other countries).

High frequency of rape may not be the real issue in India, but all the evidence suggests that India has a huge problem in seriously monitoring rape and taking steps to reduce it. The failure of the police to help rape victims and to ensure the safety of women is particularly lamentable. Following the December incident there were large clashes with the police by protesting crowds, not only because of the attempts by the police to break them up, but also because the demonstrators frequently confronted the police for their very poor record in dealing with this problem.

Even though the alleged rapists in the particular case on December 16 were picked up by the police quite quickly and promptly charged in court, the police were criticized for acting too slowly in giving emergency care when the raped victim and her beaten male friend were found lying on the street. Even in dealing with another terrible aspect of the December incident, the failure of people in passing cars to stop to help the victims (even though some of them did call the police), it was claimed that many passersby are afraid to get involved in a scene of criminal activity because of the fear that the police can—and often do—harass the good Samaritans who are found near the victims of crime, rather than searching diligently for the criminals who have fled the scene.

There was discussion also of the large number of cases in which the police seemed to doubt the credibility of a rape victim on the ground that the suspected rapist told a different story that seemed “equally credible” to the authorities. The Indian judicial system is itself extremely slow, and has not typically been able to rise to the challenge of bringing about speedy convictions of rapists and assaulters on the basis of the information provided by the victims. But the courts are certainly not well served by the unclear information provided by police reports on what exactly happened. From what we know, India’s problem may well lie not so much in a particularly high incidence of rapes, but in its inefficient policing, bad security arrangements, slow-moving judicial system, and, ultimately, the callousness of the society.

Legal Reform and Social Change

One of the salutary effects of the public agitation about women’s insecurity and the inadequacy of the law and policing was the appointment—within a week of the December 16 incident—of a Committee on Amendments to Criminal Law, chaired by a former chief justice of the Supreme Court of India, J.S. Verma, with two other leading jurists, Leila Seth and Gopal Subramanium, as members. Their report, which was thoroughly researched yet delivered in less than a month, led to a new law, enacted in Parliament by the end of March, aimed at providing more adequate, and quicker, legal remedy to violated or threatened women.

Some of the proposals of the Verma Committee were diluted in Parliament, and many human rights activists have plausibly criticized this weakening, including the continued failure to include among sexual offenses what is sometimes called “marital rape”—forced sexual activity with an unwilling partner. There are other gaps too in the parliamentary act; but taking everything into account, the new act is a substantial, though partial, step forward in dealing with gender injustice in India.

Four new provisions are important. First, the act has a broader and more inclusive definition of the crime of “sexual assault”: it includes, but goes beyond, what counts technically as rape. Second, there is a prima facie presumption of nonconsensual sex when the affected woman affirms (even if unilaterally) that there was no consent. Third, “sexual harassment”—common on the streets of some cities in India—is included among the list of criminal acts. Finally, there is a new emphasis on the criminality of the sexual trafficking of young women, mainly for the purpose of forced prostitution.

Such trafficking—sometimes even of very young girls—remains disturbingly common in India, although few serious statistics have been collected about it. There is, however, considerable evidence that the sex trade is indeed big business in India. And yet the newspapers are still shockingly negligent in their failure to investigate this area of darkness (unlike what has happened in the case of rape). Most cases of sexual trafficking involve young women from very poor families, and here the difficulty in getting authorities and journalists, among others, to cross class barriers in their care and concern—a distressingly general phenomenon in India—affects the zeal with which information is sought. There is a clear need for the new activism of newspapers to go well beyond the reporting and discussion of only rapes.

To some extent, the class barrier preventing information from being collected is a problem even in dealing with rapes, not just sex trafficking. Even though Jyoti came from a family of modest means (her father is a baggage loader at the airport), her family was upwardly mobile. It was easier for the Indian middle classes, including the educated middle classes, to take an immediate interest in the predicament of a young medical student than it would have been in the case of a rape of a poor and socially distant Dalit woman. There is a broad and urgent need to supplement the new provisions of the recently enacted law with ways to obtain and disseminate information about the treatment of women from the poorer classes.

There is also a regional dimension to the problem of women’s insecurity in India. It is clear that Delhi, where Jyoti’s rape occurred, has a very special problem that may not apply, in quite that form, to the other megacities in India. The rate of recorded rape per 100,000 people was 2.8 for Delhi in 2011, compared with 1.2 in Mumbai, 1.1 in Bangalore, 0.9 in Chennai, and 0.3 in Calcutta. Since there is nothing to indicate that keeping track of rape is much more efficient in Delhi than in the other cities, it is indeed remarkable that Delhi has a record that is more than nine times worse than Calcutta’s. No matter how unfriendly to women Indian society may be, huge differences exist between different regions of India, which apply to other kinds of gender inequality as well. In many ways India can be seen as a collection of distinct countries with diverse records, experiences, and problems.

Mike King

India’s Women: The Mixed Truth’—An Exchange December 19, 2013

  1. *

    See my “ More Than 100 Million Women Are Missing,” The New York Review, December 20, 1990. 

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