Thursday, February 12, 2015

UP's problem with rape is more serious than what the numbers indicate

As the world turns its lens on brutal rapes and murders committed against women in India, many have used statistics to 'prove' that India is not as unsafe as the media would have one believe. According to the official numbers, incidence of rape cases in India (adjusted for population) were only 7% of that in the US in 2012. Clearly, the official numbers don't match the popular narrative.

Yet, frequent reports of brutal gang-rapes that have emerged in recent years make it hard to believe that India is indeed more unsafe for women than America.

As someone who lives in India, I'm concerned that many politicians have been turning a blind eye to the problem by hiding behind numbers, particularly in Uttar Pradesh (UP). Chief minister Akhilesh Yadav said that
"When such incidents occur, it is publicised a lot. Such incidents don't occur only in UP and if I give you statistics across the country you will again ask me questions. It's Google era. If you go online and check you will see where else such incidents occur."
His remarks had been lambasted by many in the country, where UP is believed to be one of the least safe states for women. A brutal gang-rape and murder happened inside a school in the capital of the country, and a female judge was raped at her residence in the state. Yet, the official figures indicate that UP has one of the lowest rates of rape (adjusted for population) in the country at 3.1 cases of rape reported per 100,000 women (in 2013). In comparison, India as a whole had 5.5 reported cases of rape per 100,000 women in 2013.

Is UP really more safe for women than Kerala or Goa? Most in the country would find it hard to believe. For instance, the district of Badaun is "officially" one of the more safe places for women in India with an incidence of 3.04 cases of rape per 100,000 women (compared to 5.47 cases per 100,000 women for the national average). Yet, the district has become notorious in recent months for the absymal state of girls and women. In 2014, two police constables allegedly raped a minor inside a police station and later absconded (yes, you read that right).

At the same time (and contrary to popular belief), UP had one of the highest rates of conviction for rape in 2013 at 53.7%. In comparison, the national conviction rate for the crime stands at 26.4%.

Amongst the many hypotheses that could be used to explain the situation, the following are the most common:
  1. Crimes against women are massively under-recorded in UP, either because victims under-report crimes, or because the police refuses to record them (or a combination of the two). Only crimes that are extremely difficult to refute are recorded regularly. This might explain the exceptionally high conviction rate.
  2. The media really does have a bias against UP and reports crimes that happen their more regularly.
I feel that hypothesis 1 is more likely to be true than hypothesis 2 because:
  • UP Districts that border Madhya Pradesh (MP) tend to have significantly fewer recorded rapes than their MP neighbours, despite similar demographic characteristics and culture.
  • Registered cases of sexual harassment have absolutely plummeted since 2010.

    This cannot be explained by anything else except for police's refusal to register them since other influential factors (like actual instances of the crime and proclivity of victims to register the crimes) cannot change by three orders of magnitude within a year.
  • Anecdotally, the complicity of the police in not recording crime cases in order to keep figures low is well understood (although there is not hard data to prove this claim). The National reported how the police often does not record crimes for political reasons. It quoted Mr. SR Darapuri, a retired inspector-general of the UP police: “Every chief minister here wants to keep the crime figures low, and this may be directly or indirectly communicated to the police. The performance of police here is evaluated through statistics, so the police has an incentive to keep those statistics low.”
In general then, we need to understand that sensationalist headlines by the media about increasing numbers of crimes against women might be counter-productive. For instance, the significant increase in reported crimes in the aftermath of the 2012 Delhi Gang Rape might have meant that more women were reporting crime, rather than crimes actually being committed more often. Headlines stating that 'Crimes against women increased', without acknowledging that they are still under-reported do more harm than good, in my opinion.

At the same time, we need the government and the media to step up and encourage men and women in undeveloped areas to stand up for women's issues. A commendable job has been done to spread this awareness in rich and urban areas, but much needs to be done in rural areas.

Most importantly, more oversight on the police is needed. Aberrations like a 99+% year-on-year drop in the number of harassment cases can and should be identified early and relevant police officials should be held accountable for their actions, instead of letting the years go by without any action. The UP government's initiative to allow women to lodge complaints online (instead of going to a police station) is commendable, but is unlikely to benefit the poor and uneducated.

Until police officers at the lowest rung are sensitized (and punished heavily for their crimes), the most populous Indian state is unlikely to become a save haven for its female population.