Rape is perhaps the only crime that carries with it immense social implications for the victim — making even the process of seeking justice an arduous fight not just against the aggressor but against the entire system and the society within which the judicial system functions. The concepts of feminine virtue and honor have turned entrenched beliefs into unwritten codes of conduct. It takes an extremely brave woman not just to fight for justice in the face of threats from the rapist but also go against what are believed to be the basic tenets of a woman's existence. Here in India, it is not uncommon to hear that "[a woman's] virtue once lost can never be retrieved." So the underlying caution is that even if rape is a crime, it is foolishness for women to report it and expose themselves again.
According to the latest report by India's National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) — the body responsible for maintaining these records post-independence — based on the statistics available in 2006, between 1971 and 2006 rape cases have shown a seven-fold increase. During the same time frame, murder incidents had just doubled, and other violent crimes, like dacoity and rioting, had actually declined by almost 16% during the period.
What makes the situation even thornier is that seventy-five percent of the aggressors in the rapes were known to the victims. And with a quarter of the victims being minors, the trend clearly points to an extremely dangerous situation that continues to remain unaddressed. Just last year, of the 581 rape cases registered in 2007, a shocking 98.28 per cent were committed by persons known to the victims.
While some may argue that this huge increase could be due to the expanded reach of the media and its reporting capabilities, the increase in the number of reported instances of rape and the reality that until recently marital rape was not considered a crime against women, we can't forget that there are still many cases of rape that continue to go unaccounted for. Crimes against minors or victims from modest socio-economic backgrounds and crimes perpetrated by the state itself or by relatives of the victim still tend to be invisible crimes. Marital rape even today continues to go unreported because of the manner in which marriage defines the social duties and consequent demands that can be made of a wife — making refusal of sex grounds for violence against the wife for not performing her primary job in the marriage.
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Recently, a young British girl was raped and murdered in the rave beach of Goa, causing a storm in both the countries involved. While the Indian authorities were blamed for trying to hush up the case in the narcotics-rich beach city, in London the public crucified the mother for her irresponsible behavior. But does bad parenting justify a rape and murder? Despite the cultural divide, the argument is strikingly similar to one oft used in the Indian context: that women, dress "inappropriately," call for unwanted attention, which turns into teasing, molestation, sexual harassment or assault.
And the comments have come from no less than the Chief Justice of Karnataka, who blamed the "immodest dressing" of women as the reason behind the increasing crimes against women. The police in the national capital had come up with an equally bizarre handbook on "dos" and "don'ts" for women living in Delhi in the aftermath of sexual assaults on them. Again, the major concern revolved around the way the women were attired. Instead of providing a safer environment for women, it is the very agencies responsible for women's protection that resort to moral policing, shifting the onus of women's own safety onto themselves, and make excuses for the violators instead of finding ways to secure the environment and punish the perpetrators.
According to NCRB's statistics, every hour 18 women become victims of a crime, of which at least two are victims of a rape. Evidently, as rape statistics have shown a rise, so have other crimes against women with even cases of dowry — the "gifting" of money and other household items by the bride's family to the bridegroom's — and dowry-related deaths and suicides recording a rise each year and spreading to states that once did not have the practice. Not only is the demand for dowry not seen as a crime (despite existing legislation forbidding it) but the groom's value also increases exponentially depending upon the family's assets and the groom's educational qualifications and professional background.
While it's true that the lack of convictions in most of these crimes is also responsible for the impunity with which the crimes are committed, the deeply entrenched perceptions of women as property with no sexual autonomy also work to institutionalize the manner in which women are treated. Little boys learn to use expletives focused on women of the household as the initiation in to manhood, reflecting how central the sexual morality of women is in these cultural set-ups. While violence against women is also rooted in women's economic position — considering that seventy percent of the global poor are actually women — if mindset and perceptions need to change, then policies must emphatically support women's empowerment and should engage men and their attitudes as much as women.