Jyoti Singh is a name that, over the past few years, has become a symbol in India of the need for societal transformation. The world first heard of Singh in December 2012, when news of her fatal gang rape spread across global media. Since then, India has been criticized for cultivating rape culture, and the treatment of women in the country has gained international attention.
India recently ranked second-to-last in the World Economic Forum’s annual Gender Gap Index for women’s health and survival, and 114th out of 136 nations for gender equality.
Though it is a major emerging global state, India is one of the most dangerous places for females to be born.
Gender disparity is deeply complicated by cultural and generational gaps as well as inefficient politics.
Without a fundamental shift in its societal values, India’s toxic culture against women will never dissipate, impeding the nation from reaching its full potential on the global stage.
In recent years, reports of gang rapes in urbanized areas have drawn considerable domestic attention in India. Singh’s rape and murder received especially ubiquitous coverage, but it is not the only of its kind. In the past 60 years, incidents of reported rape have increased by 873percent, although it is estimated that only 1 out of 10 rapes are actually reported. On average, a woman in India is raped every 20 minutes. While the media broadcasts certain cases — such as the gang rape of a Danish tourist in the heart of New Delhi in early 2014 — India is rife with an accelerating number of rape cases. Consequently, their coverage has shed light on a more general problem in India: stagnancy in perception. Although the global media reprimands the perpetrators of these crimes and the societal attitudes that legitimize them, many members of older generations in India have attributed the rise of rape cases to the modernization and increasing “immodesty” of women. This novel rhetoric of victim blaming has its roots in a history of traditions.
For centuries, patriarchal ideals have permeated India, and they still manifest themselves strongly today. As a result, India has become a breeding ground for crimes against women.
Currently, the nation is one of the world’s biggest perpetrators of female foeticide — defined as the premature abortion of female fetuses — with about 600,000 cases occurring each year. The concept of dowry, a tradition that consists of a payment to the groom’s family by the bride’s family during a marriage, is part of the implicit cause for many of these crimes.
The establishment of the dowry extends back to the colonial age, when it was used as a form of income for the groom’s family. In spite of the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961, it is still practiced today, especially in more impoverished regions. Because the financial burden of a dowry is often too overwhelming for families, parents opt for female infanticide and foeticide to avoid further economic strife.
In the past year, dowry-related deaths have affected more than 8,000 women, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. Other cases involving dowry-related crimes report women being abused by in-laws or spouses in exchange for higher dowries. In a modern nation like India, such facts are appalling, but nonetheless all too realistic. Associating girls with financial burdens is just one of many stigmas that encourage violence against women.
India’s rape phenomenon in particular comes from a slew of antiquated beliefs. Many cultural customs have normalized the degradation of women, especially in rural areas. This is especially apparent in the treatment of women of the Dalit class, a social stratum that is synonymous with the “untouchable” class and consists of nearly 250 million people.
In June 2014, the Indian media reported the case of two sexually abused Dalit girls whose corpses were found hanging from a mango tree in the state of Uttar Pradesh, a major state in India with the second highest number of rapes in the nation. The father of the girls was refused help from law enforcement, possibly due to caste power dynamics and the normalization of the notion of achieving “honor” from taking advantage of “lower-class” women. Rapists targeting Dalit communities are not rare and are yet another example of problematic and antiquated ideals. The conviction rate of men accused of raping Dalits is close to zero, exposing the brutal reality of how much discrimination is still accepted in Indian society.
It is not just antiquated cultural disparities that fuel the rape phenomenon, but also the troubling discourse on rape that high-profile public officials engage in. After the outbreak of protests in 2012, several public officials were chided by the Indian media for making questionable statements regarding rape culture. Abhijit Mukherjee, son of President Pranab Mukherjee and also a member of Parliament, fell under immense controversy after he called women protesters in Delhi “dented and painted.”The Former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh expressed his objection towards the execution of gang rapists by claiming, “Boys will be boys.”
This mentality provides justification for the perpetration of violence. These acts, rather than being considered heinous crimes, are attributed to masculinity in general. Numerous other politicians, who carry celebrity status and high influence in Indian society, have openly made similar claims, suggesting that the degradation of women is found even among those who are highly educated and respected. In fact, politician Asha Mirje, who serves on the Maharashtra State Women’s Commission, was quick to express her consternations about rape culture when she explained the cause of sexual assault through three reasons: a woman’s clothes, her behavior and her presence in inappropriate places. Her idea that women who are raped invite their assault further complicates and partially legitimizes these crimes, especially given Mirje’s gender and position.
Tensions over these attitudes have risen to a fever pitch in recent years. Following the death of Singh, protesters called for acknowledgement of the problem as well as stricter legislation, justice for perpetrators and a change in school curriculums regarding gender rights and sexual education. The outbreaks of protest gained traction in the global media and eventually reached the attention of the government, prompting a new package of laws in 2013 concerning the protesters’ demands. The passed legislation redefined the range of crimes against women, adding stalking, acid attacks, disrobing and voyeurism. It instated compulsory jail time for officers who fail to register complaints as well as increased jail time for perpetrators — even instituting the death penalty in fatal cases. Finally, it urged healthcare providers to give free healthcare to victims of sexual violence and acid attacks.
The legislation certainly brings hope for the future of India. The most significant impact of the laws has been an increase in awareness of the issue of women’s rights and violence against women, as well as indication of the government’s willingness to address the problem. However, in spite of its significant enhancements from previous legislation, the new regulations are flawed. There is no mention of prosecution for members of the armed forces who partake in rape and assault, and the legislation explicitly states that marital rape is ineligible for conviction. This poses an immense problem to the culture of rape.
Military and marital rape have long constituted struggles for India. It is common to see known rapists avoid conviction if they are military personnel, as they are provided legal immunity by the state. A United Nations Population Fund survey recently revealed that two-thirds of married Indian women have been forced into sex by their partners. The fact that the government is hesitant to address marital rape on the basis of preserving the “institution of marriage is yet another disturbing insight into the barriers to justice that women face. Granting immunity to a sector of the population for a crime of this magnitude only delegitimizes it further and shows how far the government still needs to go to address the problem.
In 2013, the number of reported rape cases in India reached 33,707, a significant increase from 24,923 incidents in 2012. In spite of new legislation, rape culture clearly still holds strong. The laws have had minimal impact, and without a change in the political environment of the nation, they will continue to do so. Law enforcement remains complicit in rape culture. The dearth of reported rape cases is largely due to police lethargy. And even when cases are reported, police officers often refuse to let the complaints through, whether out of utter neglect, disinterest or misogynistic perceptions. Despite this problematic reality, the government has failed to significantly reform the police force, which, unlike societal perceptions, is directly under government control.
Today, India exists in a limbo between modernization and the stagnancy of traditional beliefs. While it has always prided itself on having a rich culture and traditions, the onslaught of economic development — as well as the influence of globalization — bears an immense impact on India’s society, for better and for worse. As the nation advances economically and industrially, it must also advance culturally. India’s women can exert incredible power in Indian politics, as shown by exemplary females from Indira Gandhi to Indra Nooyi. But as the country becomes more prominent in the global scene, its gender gap is simultaneously widening, creating a stark disparity between itself and other superpowers. Without addressing the prominent discrimination against women in its society, India will only remain behind.