Democracy Lab Weekly Brief, January 14, 2013

In a no-holds-barred response to last week's DemLab article by Rick Rowden, Charles Robertson and Michael Moran explain why they're convinced that Africa's economic rise is real.

Robert Looney tells the surprising tale of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega's conversion to capitalism -- and the political risks he confronts as a result.

Robyn Meredith reports on the challenges that face China as it tries to make the high-stakes shift to an economy driven by domestic consumption rather than exports.

In the latest of our continuing series of collaborations with Princeton's Innovations for Successful Societies, Michael Schraff recounts the formidable challenges surmounted by Liberia as it organized its first post-civil war election.

Jonathan Pincus argues that Indonesia's boom will be short-lived if it doesn't start investing in its people.

And Neha Paliwal contends that India's problem is with people, not just women.

And now for this week's recommended reads:

In the Egyptian Independent, Hafsa Halawa gives a first-person account of the government crackdown on civil society groups.

Writing for Slate, Lawrence Weschler makes the case for why Bahrain's activist Al-Khawaja family should be nominated for the Nobel Prize. In The Atlantic, Larry Diamond accuses the Obama administration of betraying Bahrain's would-be democrats. (You can read Democracy Lab's interview with Maryam Al-Khawaja, one of FP's 2012 Global Thinkers, here.)

On NPR's All Things Considered, Anthony Kuhn wonders whether the West may have been too hasty in removing sanctions on Burma, given the country's continuing war on Kachin insurgents.

The Brookings Institution lays out the top priorities for Africa in 2013.

The new issue of The Journal of Democracy reports on the prospects for democracy in China, how to fight corruption through collective action, and the fate of the Arab Spring.

The Quilliam Foundation offers a detailed look at Jabhat al-Nusra, the leading jihadi group among the Syrian rebels.

The United States Institute of Peace presents a report that examines how young Afghans see their country's future.

Writing in Jadaliyya, Samar Al-Balushi offers a skeptical take on the International Criminal Court.

Finally, be sure to check out the remarkable documentary Tropicalia, which describes the boom in Brazilian pop music during the 1960s military dictatorship -- an intriguing exploration of the tensions between authoritarianism and creativity. 

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Photo by BANARAS KHAN/AFP/Getty Images


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