Women’s safety: India’s poor record


Right now the focus is on Haryana due to a recent series of gruesome rapes and murders, but concerns over the safety of women in India are not confined to this northern state. Delhi has long been considered one of the most unsafe cities for women.

However, even going by Haryana’s abysmal record, what has happened in the last few days has been horrifying. One more case of rape was reported on Friday, taking the total number in the last one week to nine. Rape, by gangs or single individual, is only one part of a growing problem of sexual violence against women.

All parts of India, especially in the north, are affected. Each day, the Delhi police register 50 crimes against women on average, including at least four cases of rape.

In December 2012, the brutal rape and murder of a 21-year-old college student on a bus in New Delhi shook the conscience of the entire nation and made international headlines. Widespread protests across India led to the enactment of a new law against sexual crimes, incorporating new categories of offenses in the Indian Penal Code and providing for stringent punishments for the perpetrators of sexual offenses. Sadly, the changes in the law or the fact that India has had a woman as prime minister and had another woman as the chairperson of the ruling Congress Party for many years has had little effect on the ground.

Many reasons have been cited for this unhappy state of affairs. Poor policing is one. India has the lowest police-to-public ratio in the world. Compounding the problem is a huge shortage of policewomen. What is more, India’s police, both male and female, are not trained and sensitized to handle sexual crimes.

The Indian judicial system is painfully slow. It generally takes anywhere from 10 to 15 years for an Indian court to decide on a case and convict the offender. Add to this the shortage of judges. Then there is the problem of the low rate of conviction. In 2016, nearly 39,000 rape cases were reported across the country. Only 4,739 of them resulted in convictions.

In India, the onus of proving the crime rests with the victim. Narrating the gory details of their ordeal in an open court is too painful for most rape victims. For this reason, many avoid registering a complaint. Social stigma attached to sexual crimes also works to the advantage of criminals.

However, perhaps, the biggest contributory factor is the public’s apathy and India’s patriarchal mindset. The 2012 Delhi rape took place on a bus but no passenger intervened to rescue the girl. Additionally, Haryana’s director general of police said the other day that rape and related incidents were “part of society”.

In 2016, on New Year’s Eve, inebriated revelers in India’s IT capital, Bangalore, sexually assaulted women who had gathered in public places for celebrations, but the state home minister laid the blame squarely on the victims for what he described as their improper and provocative dress.

This means that stringent implementation of laws and strict policing will be of little help unless there is a change in the attitude and behavior of both individuals and society.