The rape and horrific injuries leading to death of Nirbhaya shocked the nation’s conscience. In a reactionary stance, an inquiry committee submitted its findings and recommendations within a month. The government agreed to only a few recommendations and dismissed others to come up with a new law that allowed rapists to receive the death penalty. The society felt relieved. Collective conscience was cleansed notwithstanding a few dissenting voices. Four years on, 4 of the 5 culprits have been sentenced to death by Supreme Court. India is at the dawn of a new epoch of safety for women. Who dare rape one if he has to pay with his life. Right? Wrong. Blaming and punishing the perpetrator alone will not address the underlying belief systems, based in a patriarchal culture that gives rise to various myths that trigger, promote and sustain sexual assaults and rape on women.
Myth #1: Law is the only solution
The biggest myth is that by tightening the law and invoking harsh punishments, the rape rate will do down. In fact the Nirbhaya case is misleading as very few victims of rape actually report it and even fewer get justice as Figure 1 tells us.
The truth is that for a small minority of victims actually go to police they find exclusion and persecution galore. From a refusal to write a complaint, focussing on victim’s caste, character and occasionally taking sexual advantage, the police make life more hellish. If a report is made, she goes for a medical exam where the doctor inserts two fingers into her vagina to determine if she is ‘habituated to sex’; an euphemism for ‘I think she is of “loose” character; hence her account cannot be relied upon.’ There is no medical basis to this ‘test’, but it’s still done. Once she crosses this ‘test’, samples send off for analysis will often be sent in an incorrect manner rendering them unsuitable for analysis. They are simply thrown away. At this point the prosecution’s case will fail. If it does reach the courts, the poor rape victim’s private life will be disrobed for public scrutiny and titillation, completing a cycle of victimisation by shunning, mocking or blaming her for the abuse.
Myth #2: Rape is men lusting for sex
Does anyone think that the Nirbhaya rape and killing was simply a case of lust? No, it was butchery of a defenceless woman by a pack of men who were enraged that she attempted to fight for her safety. Their sense of entitlement to her body was challenged and they avenged that ignominy, by behaving like predators. The rape of women whose faces are melted down with acid with permanent disfigurement, when they turn down advances by unsavoury characters, are not acts driven by love and lust. Similarly rapes by upper caste men on lower caste women, by police on tribal women, by senior upon junior officers in armed forces, media bosses upon interns, corporate barons upon secretaries and so on, are rarely due to love or lust. It is a primate display of power and control and naked entitled male chauvinism.
Myth #3: Rape is society’s problem, not mine
‘Rape cannot be prevented even if one deployed a cop in each home’, hurled Maharashtra’s ex-Home Minister R R Patil. Quite right too. In fact 42% of rapes in India are committed by people known to the victims, of which over 12% is by relatives like brothers, fathers and uncles, and by others on the promise of marriage. Rapists are notoriously common-place. One of the biggest misconceptions about rapists is that ‘they are not like us at all’. By saying this, the society’s men distance and absolve themselves of any responsibility since doing so helps them deny their own inherent violent sexual fantasies.
Myth #4: Rape is not part of our culture
A survey of more than 10,000 men carried out in six Asian countries revealed that more than 1 in 10 men admitted to forcing sex on a woman who was not their partner. Asked why, 73% said it was “entitlement” and 59% said “entertainment”. Five men convicted in the Shakti Mills gang-rape case of a photo-journalist in Mumbai in 2013 were conspicuous by how ‘common’ they were: swarthy, slight men with ordinary faces; the kind one might see at any bus stop or tea stall. The police said the men had committed at least five gang-rapes previously at the same spot because they were “bored” and wanted to “have fun”. Rape is now a common-place offence where ‘bored’ men, aroused by streaming porn videos in their palms , who after getting drunk, go out looking for deviant fun for free.
Myth #5: It is just a few misguided ‘boys’
Sample a range of quotes from political leaders across all party lines. Note how they fall over themselves in justifying, rationalizing and effectively condoning the act of rapists.
“Lingerie mannequins promote rapes. Skimpily-clad mannequins can pollute young minds. After the Delhi rape case, I felt something had to be done.” – Ritu Tawade, the BJP corporator who mooted the proposal to ban lingerie mannequins.
“To my understanding, consumption of fast food contributes to such incidents. Chowmein leads to hormonal imbalance evoking an urge to indulge in such acts. Hence, our elders too advised to eat light and nutritious food.” – Jitender Chhatar, Thua Khap Panchayat leader.
“Why do women need phones? My mother, wife and sister never had mobile phones. They survived without one.” – Rajpal Saini, BSP leader, explaining rape to the presence of mobile phones!
“The victim is as guilty as her rapists. She should have called the culprits brothers and begged before them to stop.” – said alleged rapist Asaram Bapu, self-styled godman, after Nirbhaya incident.
“Rape is mainly prevalent in urban ‘India’ due to Western influence and such crimes against women do not happen in rural ‘Bharat’.” – Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS chief who thinks its not in ‘our’ culture.
“We have no answer to this rising spate of crimes against women. Stars are not in position.” – Nanki Ram Kanwar, former Chhattisgarh home minister, blaming astronomy for rapes.
“And then the poor fellows, three of them have been sentenced to death. Should rape cases lead to hanging? Boys are boys, they make mistakes.” – Mulayam Singh Yadav, Samajwadi Party leader.
“Rape is sometimes right, sometimes wrong’ – Babu Lal Gaur of BJP, ex-home minister of MP.
“No one commits rape intentionally, it happens by mistake’ – Home Minister, Chhatisgarh, Ramsewak Paikra of BJP.
To change the culture that promotes misogyny and sustains the myths about rape, we need to bring about widespread changes in our society, families and as individuals.
So where does India go from here?
To be fair the rate of rape conviction in India is much lower than many other nations, 1.8 rapes per 1 lakh population (see Figure 2) compared to South Africa with a rate of 92 person per lakh population. India’s rape rate however is a grossly misleading statistic for reasons outlined in Figure 1. Moreover given India’s huge population, the absolute numbers are extremely high and increasing year on year according to National Crime Research Bureau, with only a slight dip in 2016 (see http://ncrb.nic.in/ for details). Law is not the panacea it is being made out to be. The police and courts, for various reasons, have summarily failed to ensure safety in the society for the common man. The situation of women is even worse.
This author’s experience in assessing and managing cases of sexual violence has led him to conclude that in India the factors driving a culture of sexual violence is an age-old, patriarchy-based, society-wide and deeply ingrained attitudinal problems. The Bollywood movie ‘Pink’ recently highlighted many of these aberrant societal attitudes but when it came to suggesting solutions, it remained firmly entrenched in the same social fabric. Hence out came a ‘Manual of Safety’ for women implying it’s her responsibility to ensure safety, albeit it was done with a strong dose of sarcasm. It too projected law and justice system as the only way to redress the situation, focussing on the individual culprits rather than the society that makes them so.
However it is not the job of a Bollywood flick to suggest solutions. Some solutions are suggested below that identifies tasks and targets not just at an individual level but what needs to be done at the family, community society and national level. Even if all of the suggested programmes are not carried out, key strategies can be adopted from the wide-list of approaches outlined here.
At an individual level
- There needs to be provision of educational programmes (religion or moral-based) that dispels the myths about rape, negative attitudes towards women and beliefs that condone rape and sexual violence. This can be carried out by the department of information and communication at a national level much like the current programme on “Swachha Bharat” is taking the message nationally.
- Hospital and community-based programs on drugs and alcohol use in high-school and university students should highlight the importance of seeking clear consent for sexual activity as this is a high-risk group.
- There should be mental health assessment of those offenders convicted or exhibiting their genitals to women (exhibitionists), stealing female clothing (fetishists), watching child pornography (paedophiles), stalkers as well as those charged with rape.
- Education of girls and women through school/college-based programs on safe and respectful dating to deal with date-rape situations can be offered.
- Regular reminders of consent-based sex, respect to rights of women by high-profile media person for impact via posters, billboards, and campaign on TV, media.
At Local Family/Colony level
- Students in school/colleges can participate in teacher-led programs where they are taught to interrupt others when inappropriate comments and sexual bullying occurs and to report to educational authorities if an atmosphere builds up that condones group -based targeting of school-girls.
- Parent-teacher meetings can be used to help parents address negative attitudes to girls and women in their own families as well as visible behaviour of father towards mother that promote sexual violence and denial of rights at home.
- Highly visible and media-person-led campaign targeting drinking and partying among children and young adults where (male) friends’ support is necessary for intoxicating, abducting and raping others, should occur so that children can learn from their role models.
- The Dhonis and Amitabh’s of the world can carry out advertisement made out of CSR monies.
- The government should implement policies at school, workplaces and other institutions that target sexual harassment and violence.
- Safe communities with adequate lighting, emergency call boxes, women’s cell in police stations, and laws targeting stalking, threatening behaviour towards community residents should be prioritized.
- Local politicians and police should regularly share crime-statistic of successful convictions with their constituents to build public confidence via media briefings and outlets. The PM of India can mention how rape is being tackled as his “Mann ki Baat’ for example.
- There needs to clear standards set for corporate advertising (or alcohol, underwear, etc) which objectifies woman as an object of lust in order to sell products.
- Pre-employment screening by police of those who work as domestic servants, security guards, in nurseries, schools and in care-homes with vulnerable people should occur routinely.
- Strategy planning must occur that would drive a national agenda of Safety for Victims with policymakers and lawmakers using data from medical emergency rooms, police reports, rape crisis centres (to be developed).
- Gender-sensitive training and skills program for front line police officers in terms of communicating sensitively to victims, removal of red-tape from medical bureaucracy, one stop-shop for rape victims in terms of making complaints, medical and forensic evidence-gathering, victim counselling and advocacy services, should all feature as priorities for the health, home and law departments.
- People in the media can contribute through awareness building in mass media, editorials, documentaries and insertion of these into existing programmes for women and children that support seeking help, making complaints and removing stigma.
- Experts working in the field, feminist and victim organizations, NGOs and government agencies should educate policy-makers and bureaucrats to address consequences of children’s exposure to violence in movies, TV, family and to school violence, as part of comprehensive violence prevention plan.
The answers to managing the rape epidemic in India therefore lies not simply in tighter and heavier punishments, but enabling the police and forcing the judicial system to overhaul an outdated and biased system that is stacked in favour of the culprits and to work on society’s deep-seated values and attitudes that has not changed with changing times. Most importantly it involves the coming together all of its citizens to bring together a raft of changes – nationally, regionally and locally – to deal with this scourge of our nation.