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Why India's 'women problem' is a people problem

There's a statistic that sheds a harsh light on the current gang-rape scandal in India. According to the Association for Democratic Reforms, a nongovernment organization, there are quite a few Indian politicians who stand accused of rape and other crimes against women. Six state assembly members have actually been elected to office despite facing rape charges.

Sounds bad. But these numbers may actually understate the real severity of the problem. It's extremely hard in India to file charges of rape or sexual harassment, much less get a conviction. Perpetrators frequently bribe the police into dropping charges. Some police refuse to file the needed reports. In one recent case the police were even caught trying to persuade a rape victim to marry her attacker. The fact that politicians can still get elected even when they've been formally charged with sex crimes says a great deal about the culture of impunity that rapists and sexual offenders in India frequently enjoy.

It's almost impossible to get reliable statistics on sex-related crimes in the country. In June, the Times of India released information compiled by the National Crime Records Bureau that ranked Delhi as having the highest number of recorded cases among Indian cities, with 568 registered cases in 2011, followed by Mumbai with 218. But experts caution that the real figures are likely to be far higher since cases are almost certainly under-reported. "There is hardly any fear left in the person who commits the offense," said Harish Shetty, a psychiatrist who commented on the authorities' report. He suggested that Indians come together in their communities to push for a stronger law-enforcement response to sexual violence.

But nothing happened. It wasn't until the horrific gang rape of a medical student in a Delhi bus on Dec. 16 that Indians began to come together to publicly protest violence against women. The story of that brutal assault, committed by six men with a ferocity that ultimately led to the death of the victim (dubbed "Damini," "Amanat," and "Braveheart" by the press), has rightly stirred powerful emotions. But why only now?

According to the current imperfect statistics, someone is raped every 20 minutes in India (up from 54 minutes several years ago). These cases -- horrible enough in themselves -- often trigger a chain of equally scandalous consequences based on traditional notions of female and family honor. Indians frequently consider rape victims to be disgraced and tarnished, and the shame frequently results in ostracism for the woman assaulted. Women who have survived sexual attack can find themselves facing the additional humiliation of being stamped as "unmarriageable" -- a label that has dire financial and social consequences in a world where family connections count for everything. This is why relatives and even the authorities sometimes pressure rape victims into marrying their attackers.

Yet such practices have come in for little public criticism precisely because they are largely restricted to the lower classes, making them, implicitly, ignorable. By contrast, the case of the English-speaking, well-educated medical student is a tragedy primarily because something like this shouldn't have happened to a girl like her. (Some of the protesters, mostly well-educated Delhiites, have been seen with signs proclaiming "it could have been me" -- their newfound emergence in a city known as "the rape capital of India" is a good indication of the underlying class anxieties provoked by the case.)

In the aftermath of the attack, commentators have rushed to analyze India's "women problem." But they may be missing the point. India's problem isn't just with women -- it's with people.

In many respects, India today remains a strongly hierarchical society. Indians are accustomed to viewing social interactions as encounters between superiors and inferiors, situations where the former can expect deference from the latter. Meetings of equals are rare. Those who hold power -- whether they are politicians, parents, or men -- are accustomed to wielding it against the powerless with little fear of reprisal. Yet today this essentially conservative mentality now coexists with conditions of explosive social change. Rampant inequality and abject poverty contribute to a fundamental sense of economic and social instability.

Yes, there is a problem about violence against women. But the ubiquity of sexual violence is a natural offshoot of a broader moral universe in which people feel that they have a right to be aggressive toward marginalized groups without being called to task for it. Sexual violence is yet one more manifestation of a society where victims are rendered voiceless by their inability to seek justice. The same goes for people (men and women) who suffer at the hands of moneylenders, village elders, employers, the rich, and other powerful figures (not least the aforementioned politicians). Those whose rights have been abused are forced to suffer and endure. This, too, contributes to the endemic violence of Indian society.

Rapists hold impunity not because of misogyny, but because perpetrators of social injustice in general have impunity. Cherry-picking sexual violence as worthy of fast-track courts is only a political solution meant to appease protesters. It does not make sense in a larger context where most cases can take up to a decade to process. It does not address the culture where crimes against marginalized groups are not taken seriously. Without emphasis on justice and enforcement in general, there is little reason to believe that in a few months, these fancy new laws and high declarations will have any real impact on the prevalence of rape for all women.

On Dec. 16, Damini and her friend were returning home from seeing a movie in a mall in South Delhi, an area where women would expect to drink and wear "revealing clothes" without a second glance. A bus on an illegal route, driven by five drunken men and a minor, stopped to pick them up. An argument ensued.

Fights in Delhi are frequent -- though they rarely rise to the level of the violence committed on the night of the attack on Damini, in which the rapists used an iron bar as a weapon and also savagely beat up her companion. After the attackers threw her naked body from the bus, the driver apparently also tried to run her over. All this should serve to remind us that rape is, above all, an act of violence.

Damini's fate also reminds us that the violence, now so pervasive in Indian society, will continue to exist as long as the powerful refuse to show accountability, to bear responsibility, or to confront the all-encompassing culture of corruption. Violence is structurally built into Delhi's culture, and everyone's feeling the brunt of it -- women perhaps most of all. But they're hardly the only ones.

Neha Paliwal is an Editorial Assistant for Democracy Lab 

Photo by SAM PANTHAKY/AFP/GettyImages

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Democracy Lab Weekly Brief, January 07, 2013

Rick Rowden argues that recent accounts of "Africa's rise" are fundamentally flawed.

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Writing for The Irrawaddy, Gustaaf Houtman offers a vivid take on the recent changes in Burma as the society continues to open up.

Over at The New York Times, Simon Romero presents an unforgettable portrait of Uruguay's ultra-modest president.

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Photo by AFP/Getty Images