By: Vani S. Kulkarni, Manoj K. Pandey & Raghav Gaiha
Although the prevalence of sexual violence in India is the lowest in the world (8.5 per cent in 2013), it affects 27.5 million women in the country. Rapes reported to the police as sexual violence surged from 39 per day to 93 per day in 2013. In Uttar Pradesh alone, five rapes occurred in 36 hours. Even these are underestimations, for two reasons. One is the exclusion of marital rapes, which are not a prosecutable crime. No less important is the fact that barely 1 per cent of victims of sexual violence report the crime to the police. Adolescent wives are the most vulnerable to marital sexual violence and an estimated 2.5 million adolescent girls (between 15 to 19 years) are victims of sexual violence.
Gangrapes continue to occur with strong frequency and brutality. Although the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013, provides for the death penalty to repeat offenders, often, many are let off the hook or roam free. Whether the self-confessed rapist, Shiv Kumar Yadav, who allegedly raped a woman executive in a cab a few days ago, will get the penalty warranted by these heinous crimes is, however, difficult to surmise.
On May 27, the (alleged) rape and subsequent lynching of two cousins (aged 14 and 12) in Badaun district of UP led to the arrest of five individuals, who were released after a CBI investigation determined that there was no evidence of rape or murder. This was dismissed as a case of double suicide, as the elder cousin was caught in an “intimate” act with the main accused. Yet, there were no traces of hair or fingerprints on her, and doubts thus persist about the exoneration of the accused (including the policeman). In a not-so-infrequent case, a woman in the same region was gangraped by policemen themselves for refusing to pay a bribe.
Equally grim tales of rape, brutality and murder abound in other regions. In 2014, a girl was gangraped twice and then killed by the same group of men in West Bengal. The second assault was provoked by a criminal complaint by her, naming the attackers, as she walked back from the police station. More than a year after she was killed, justice still eludes the contractual teacher in a primary school in Odisha. She had been harassed by a powerful local gang for denying sexual favours to one of their own — a sub-inspector of schools. Her dying statement led to his arrest, the suspension of a few state officials and dismissal of two policemen. But the assailant, who set her ablaze, is still absconding.
Dominance and control over women are set in male attributes and behaviour (“masculinity”), regarded as a shared social ideal. Violence is not necessarily a part of masculinity, but the two are often closely linked, mediated by class, caste and region. Masculinity is characterised by two factors — namely, “relationship control” as a behavioural attribute and “attitudes towards gender equality” as an underlying value (the United Nations Population Fund, 2014). More than three-fourths of men expected their partners to agree if they wanted to have sex and more than half of men didn’t expect their partners to use contraceptives without their permission. Thirty-two per cent of men demonstrated a more rigid masculinity, as they believed that women and men are inherently unequal.
Caste hierarchy matters. Upper-caste men systematically rape women of low castes in north Indian villages. But when lower-caste men rape a woman of an upper caste, it becomes a crime to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, as it violates social norms (Vani Kulkarni and Kristin Plys, “Prevalence of Rape in Delhi NCR”, Global Review, Volume 3, Issue 3, American Sociological Association, 2013).
Notions of honour are central to the discourse on rape. The rape of a daughter, sister or wife is a source of dishonour to males within the family structure. When an earlier sexual assault victim of Shiv Kumar Yadav’s shared her experience with the media, her husband’s angry reaction, “Tu kitni naak katayegi? Moonh band nahi rakh sakti?” was typical. This deters the reporting of rape to the police, reinforced by a belief in the impunity of perpetrators, the fear of retaliation, and humiliation by the police through physical and verbal abuse.
While family honour matters, there is growing evidence of self-honour in how urban women frame the trauma of their harassment, rape or violence. When such complaints are registered with the police, these are motivated by regaining that self-honour. If, however, family honour matters more, there will be fewer attempts to fight back (Kulkarni and Plys).
Horrific cases of rape provoke cynical responses. While many are dismissive of the more-stringent anti-rape laws (such as the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013), others remain divided on the efficacy of a diverse range of interventions involving boys and men and women in violence prevention.
One major problem with anti-rape laws is that their enforcement is feeble and painfully slow, and thus largely inconsequential as a deterrent to sexual violence. The government created fast-track courts in New Delhi to expeditiously deal with such cases, but they are overflowing. As of November, these courts had convicted 178 attackers and acquitted 407; more than 1,700 cases are pending. It is not persuasive to assert that such delays are not remediable.
Interventions that address masculinity seem to be more effective than those that ignore the powerful influence of gender norms and systems of inequality. Yaari Dosti’s limited experience is encouraging. Young men in the intervention groups in Mumbai and Gorakhpur were much less likely to perpetrate physical or sexual violence than others in these sites. The replicability of such results cannot be rejected outright.
Effective women-focused initiatives strengthen resilience against violence by combining economic empowerment with greater awareness of rights and women’s relationship skills through, for example, the Rashtriya Mahila Kosh and Swawlamban programmes.
Behavioural changes are, however, slower than changes in male attitudes, as corroborated by some of these initiatives. In conclusion, while the rapidly growing menace of sexual violence is scary and abhorrent, there are grounds for optimism.
Kulkarni is associate of Urban Ethnography Centre, Department of Sociology, Yale University; Pandey is a doctorate in economics, Australian National University; and Gaiha is former professor of public policy, Faculty of Management Studies, University of Delhi.