Thursday, November 20, 2014

Crime against women in India

Preventing crime against women has quickly become a priority in India, and deservedly so. It is also a topic that has led to hot debates across the country. Unfortunately, many of these debates have not been grounded in fact, and have been undermined by shocking statements by politicians as well as some sensationalism from the mainstream media. A fact-based approach is needed to create a productive discussion on the issue.

In this view, let us establish some facts of the matter first.

Reported cases of crime against women are rising, but crimes are still under-reported

Data obtained from the National Crimes Records Bureau (2013) shows that reported crime against women has risen significantly in recent years.

While the graph above would seem to indicate the crime against women is rising rapidly across the country, it is likely indicative of a larger proportion of crimes being reported by victims. India still suffers from a severe under-reporting of crimes, especially crimes related to sexual violence or harassment. A survey by the Institute of Human Development recently concluded that “while 100 out of every 100,000 women said they had experienced rape as per the IHD statistics, the corresponding number was just 8 out of every 100,000 according to the [official government] data."

Sexual harassment is severely under-reported

Reports of sexual crimes against women skyrocketed in 2013, thanks largely to women feeling empowered by the social and legislative changes created in the aftermath of the 2012 Delhi Gang Rape.

However, it is still shocking that there are more cases of rape and molestation than those of sexual harassment. The reasons for this are threefold:
  • Victims under-report cases: Victims often don’t report crimes due to fear of retaliation or humiliation.
  • Police under-records cases: Police often does not take down crimes that they do not deem to be too serious. This is often a problem even with major crimes like rape and molestation. Disgustingly, the police is sometimes complicit in these crimes.
  • Victims’ lack awareness: Sexual harassment are a part of routine life for many in the country, and they are not aware that they can report it as a crime to the police. This is particularly true in rural areas.
This trend manifests even more severely in less developed states like Uttar Pradesh, with almost no cases of sexual harassment registered in recent years.

Cases of dowry are vastly under-reported

At the same time, reports of dowries are likely vastly under-reported in India. Until recently, there were more cases of dowry deaths than there were of dowries across the country. Clearly, this indicates that cases of dowry are being vastly under-reported.

While significant progress has been made in recent years, especially by states in the south, much still needs to be done in northern states like Punjab.

(I am cherry picking a little, other northern states do not have the same extent of under-reporting as Punjab. But in general, states in the north fare much poorly than states in the south)

Progress made and challenges

While significant legislative and social progress was made to lower the social, legislative and bureaucratic barriers to filing reports, much needs to be done. The graphs above show that crimes such as dowries and sexual harassment are still under-reported, and well-researched reports such as these show that the same is true for rape and molestation.

Yet, there has been a significant backlash from men who, perhaps justifiably, think that they can now be falsely accused of crimes by women. The Delhi Commission for women found that about half the cases of rape registered between April 2013 to July 2013 were without basis. This has made many men think that we will “end up with reactionary laws that unfairly target men”, “over half the cases are fake and women are not afraid to share their problems”, and that “there is no stigma" against sexual crimes in India (quotes taken from various online discussions).

Moving forward

While some complaints of these men are justified, it is important to note that false charges will eventually be cleared. But women that do not have an opportunity to file for cases, are not aware that crimes are being committed against them, or are too afraid to register sexual crimes that have happened against them will never have a chance for justice.

My friend Sruthy Parvathy Kumar, who formerly volunteered with Teach for India, noted that “a number of the Teach for India fellows reported that the female students (6th to 10th graders) were being sexually harassed by some of the male teachers. The bigger problem was that the girls thought that sort of behavior from teachers - being approached and touched by a male teacher like that - was alright. Some of the teachers took advantage of their students’ silence and went on to exhibit greater predatory behaviour. The fellows I worked with were distraught and not in a position to report on these male teachers because 1) school management KNEW about these incidents and 2) chose to keep quiet for fear that the said teachers would leave.”

Ultimately, we need to educate and empower girls and women in the country about their rights, and work against the culture of shame that still plagues the majority of women that are victims of sexual abuse. The recent legislative changes and media attention is a great start, but the reforms and attention need to be sustained for India to become a truly equal society.


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