Indian Decade

Legislation Alone Can’t Solve India’s Rape Problem

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Indian Decade

Legislation Alone Can’t Solve India’s Rape Problem

While India’s politicians offer solutions, the roots of the problem lie deeper than legislation alone can address.

The Delhi police filed charges with a local district court on Thursday, setting in motion a trial for the horrific rape case that has gripped the nation in recent weeks. Five of the six men accused of perpetrating the rape are being charged with murder, rape and kidnapping among other charges. If convicted the defendants are nearly certain to be given the death sentence. The sixth man being accused of the rape is a juvenile and will therefore have his case handled by the Juvenile Justice Board.

Late in the evening on December 16th a 23-year-old paramedic student was brutally attacked and raped in a private bus that was driving through the busy streets of the nation’s capital. She died weeks later in a Singaporean hospital as a result of the injuries she sustained during the senseless and barbaric attacks.

The death of Damini, as the victim is popularly known as (her real name has been withheld from the public), has enraged the entire nation and prompted near-continuous protests throughout the capital over the last three weeks. 

Faced with constant and relentless pressure from protestors, politicians and the media, the police acted swiftly in preparing the charge sheet in just twenty days, something extraordinary by the standards of the Delhi police force.

But there are cases not very far from Delhi where victims search in vain for justice for months after the incident.

A case in point is a 16-year-old girl from the state of Haryana in northern India, who was gang-raped by at least eight men in September. The girl was from a poor, lower caste Dalit family, and her multiple attackers were primarily from higher class families who held positions of power in the rural village in which she lived. They raped her for three hours, video-taping their crimes, and threatened to kill her and her family if she told anyone about the attack.

For over a week the girl kept silent out of fear for her life and social prestige in her village. She also doubted that anything would come of telling people of the atrocity she had suffered, given her family’s social status relative to those of her attackers.

Yet even her silence was telling, as her mother later confided: "She would just lie in bed all day, she wouldn't talk, she wouldn't eat, I thought she was ill.”

After learning of the attack against her teenage daughter, the mother also initially opted for silence.

“People told me to forget about what had happened. They said this is a matter of your daughter's reputation. Who will marry her if people find out she was raped? Let it be, don't make a big deal," her mother told media outlets.

Her attackers found it harder to keep quiet about their crimes, however, and the cell phone videos they had taken of the attack soon began circulating around the small village. It wasn’t long before one of those videos was shown to the victim’s father, who had not been told of the incident. Horrified and humiliated, he committed suicide by drinking pesticide. This shocked the Dalit community and they, joined by local activists and the media, began demanding justice. Following her father’s death, the girl too worked up the courage to speak out about what she had been through.

Not everyone responded positively to the disclosure. The Congress Party president in Haryana Phool Chand Mullana said the rise in rapes in the state was a “political conspiracy,” implying the media was to blame. Even more outrageous, another Congress leader in Haryana declared that 90% of rapes in the state began as consensual sex.

Another local leader, Sube Singh, was only slightly less callous in blaming a recent spate of rapes on the entertainment industry. “I believe this is happening because our youth are being badly influenced by cinema and television,” Singh said.

Singh, echoed by at least one Congress Party leader, went on to suggest early marriage for young girls as the proper remedy for reducing the number of violent rapes. “I think that girls should be married at the age of 16, so that they have their husbands for their sexual needs, and they don't need to go elsewhere. This way rapes will not occur," Singh said.

The implication that the victims were actual at fault for being raped was all the more incredulous because Singh was speaking about another gang-rape of a teenage Dalit girl in Haryana. Unable to live with the pain and trauma of the attack, she returned to her home following the rape, doused herself in kerosene, and lit herself on fire. She died in a hospital soon after.

Stories like these also illustrate an often overlooked aspect of the debate over women’s rights in India, namely the divisions between rural and urban, and middle-class and lower-class victims.

As noted author and political activist Arundhati Roy recently argued, the large scale protests “will lead to some laws, increase surveillance and all of that will protect middle class women but in other places we are not looking for laws…when the police themselves go and burn down villages and gang rape women…”

There is, therefore, serious apprehension about the efficacy of imposing harsher laws to address the problems afflicting women in Indian society.

While the large scale protests that have followed the gang-rape of the 23-year-old paramedic in Delhi have been inspiring, it must be understood that the cause of some of India’s condemnable treatment of women is rooted in deeper issues that legislation alone will not address. While the UPA government has pledged to adopt a number of measures in metropolitan cities like Delhi to reduce crime rates, these should not come at the expense of neglecting the awful crimes perpetrated upon women in rural areas of the country, which will often require stronger and different remedies than may be the case in urban areas.