When I read about the rape of a 23-year-old photojournalist in Mumbai, I thought, here we go again.
On December 6, 1992, when I was a 29-year-old reporter covering the demolition of a mosque in northern India, I was attacked. Though not raped, my attackers sexually assaulted and then tried to kill me.
Someone dragged me to a trench outside the mosque and pulled my shirt off. But a passer-by jumped in, fought off my attackers and saved me.
When I appeared in court to testify against the attackers, their lawyers asked me questions that implied I was responsible for the attack. How could the daughter of a good family have gone to cover the demolition? Did I smoke, what kind of clothes was I wearing, did I believe in God?
The judge did not stop them. It was a demoralising and toxic experience — but one that is not unknown to women in India who choose to speak out against sexual attacks. They are silenced by a process that heaps shame, fear and guilt on them.
In rural Rajasthan in 1992, a judge dismissed charges filed by a low-caste grassroots social worker, Bhanwari Devi, who said she was gang-raped by upper-caste men because she was campaigning against child marriage in their family. The judge said the accused were not guilty because “a middle-aged man from an Indian village could not possibly have participated in a gang rape in the presence of his own nephew”.
A judgment like this not only deters other women from testifying against their rapists but also emboldens the attackers, who know that they will get away with it.
Most women say they wouldn’t even think of telling the police about an attack for fear the cops would ignore them, or worse, blame them and abuse them. Few women want to appear in court, only to be stigmatised and traumatised — which doesn’t happen to the suspect. While India’s legal framework has improved for women over the past 20 years, the people implementing it are mostly male cops and lawyers who live in a deeply patriarchal society.
Incidents of rape have gone up by 873 per cent in India in the past 60 years. On average, each day, three Dalit women are raped in some part of our country. The conviction rate for rape cases between 2001 and 2010, was 26 per cent — although some estimate only 1 in 10 rapes is reported.
The National Crime Records Bureau’s annual report of crime statistics also reports disturbing findings: A woman is raped somewhere in India every 20 minutes, and the number of children raped has increased by 336 per cent in the last 10 years.
This culture of impunity is one of the reasons rape has become the weapon of choice for frustrated young men. They blame the increasingly visible women in the workplace for their own unemployment, and hope to regain jobs by frightening women back home through sexual violence.
The blaming of women, in turn, is fed by a cult of masculinity promoted by corporate and political leaders who serve as role models for the rest of society.
In the course of my work with Apne Aap Women Worldwide, I have seen the steady creeping of a rape culture into the fabric of India. We work to organise women in prostitution to resist their own and their daughters’ rape. The biggest challenge we face is the attitude of politicians, senior police officials, heads of foundations and even policy makers who view rape as a normal part of society. Many have told me: “Men will be men.”
When the National Crime Records Bureau pegged West Bengal as the state with the highest incidence of crimes against women, the chief minister contested the bureau’s statistics rather than tackling the problem.
Continually, budget allocations to the ministry of women and child development are reduced. Debates to ensure equal power sharing between the sexes through the Women’s Reservation Bill have gone nowhere.
However, no amount of violence and intimidation is going to force women back into their homes. In fact, homes are often the places where women are in the most danger — from the time they are conceived to old age. An average Indian women could very likely be a victim of foeticide, infanticide, malnourishment, dowry, child marriage, maternal mortality, domestic servitude, prostitution, rape, honour killings, and domestic violence — simply because she is female.
Equipped with better education, women are courageously taking their place in the public sphere as doctors, lawyers, journalists, bankers, politicians, farmers, teachers and more. They are signing up for social justice movements to end the growing inequality and unemployment in our country.
As yet another gang-rape victim suffers in India, we have to recognise the need to overhaul the criminal justice system. In December 2012, India and the world were shocked by the brutal gang rape and beating aboard a moving bus of a 23-year-old physiotherapy intern, who later died of massive internal injuries. It prompted massive calls for reform, protests and close examination of India’s attitudes toward rape.
But after the initial outrage, it seems that the law has only changed on paper. The recent rape in Mumbai might not have happened if the culture of rape was truly overcome and sexual assaults were taken seriously.