I have been working to end sex trafficking in our country for 20 years — first as a journalist and then as an activist. I organize women in prostitution who want to save themselves and their daughters from the repeated rapes in their lives.
We have been campaigning for 10 years to change the Indian anti-trafficking law, to punish the perpetrators — clients and pimps — rather than the victims, to no avail, even though the Central Bureau of Investigation admits that there are 1.2 million girls being sexually exploited in brothels across India.
The biggest challenge I face is the normalization of rape in our culture. In the course of my work, senior police officials, heads of foundations and even policy makers, have told me: “Men will be men,” or “Girls from good families will be raped, if prostitutes don’t exist.”
These comments perpetuate a notion of masculinity in which men have unbridled sexual desire, will rape women if they are not obtainable otherwise, and that poor women should be sexually available to protect middle-class women.
Added to a culture of impunity to violence against women, this has led to a complete lack of fear of consequences — legal or social — among men who attack women and girls.
A crime against women is reported every two minutes somewhere in India, and three quarters of rape cases end with no conviction. Most women say they would not even think of telling the police about an attack for fear that the cops would ignore them or, worse, blame them and abuse them.
Statistics compiled by the National Crime Records Bureau showed that between 1953 and 2011, incidents of rape went up by 873 per cent in India. This is three times faster than all cognizable crimes put together and three-and-a-half times faster than murder.
In a survey conducted by the Thomson Reuters’ TrustLaw Women, India ranks with Afghanistan, Congo and Somalia as one of the most dangerous places for women. The survey reported, “ In three of the four cases of rape, the culprits went unpunished between 2002 and 2011 in Delhi.” The conviction rate for the country as a whole, on the average, between 2001 and 2010, in rape cases was 26 per cent only.
Far from fearing a deterrent punishment, men feel they can get away with everything. The December 16 crime — when six men raped a 23-year-old student and nearly beat her to death with iron rods on a bus in Delhi has evoked a huge public outcry.
This is the moment for us to confront violence against women at all levels in our society — rich and poor, urban or rural — and challenge prevalent norms, attitudes, practices that trivialize, normalize, tolerate, or even condone rape.
India has become the third largest user of pornography in the world. Blue movies and CDs are available at any video parlour. For many 12-year-olds the first sexual encounter is a pop-up character on a television screen being penetrated in every part of the body, with tears streaming down her face, asking for more. I am curious as to why the men who raped the student do not think they did anything wrong. Were they socialized into believing that sex was connected to violence through countless hours of watching porn? I wonder if the police will ask this question during their investigation.
People are asking for fast-track courts for speedy justice, chemical castration of the perpetrators, and immediate passage of the sexual harassment at the workplace bill. But most disturbingly, I heard some mention the legalization of prostitution as a solution. This would once again excuse men for their violence and put poor women and girls in harm’s way.