India’s rape shame

Indian students shout slogans during an anti-rape protest. AP Photo/Saurabh Das

The gang rape and death of an Indian woman and other incidents have turned the spotlight on the nation’s attitude to women, writes Claire O’Sullivan

NEARLY three months ago the world was shocked by the death of a 23-year-old following a horrific rape on a moving bus in India. The physiotherapy student was raped repeatedly by a gang of young men, penetrated by an iron rod, and had her intestines ripped out.

Then last week the world’s eye once again turned to the world’s largest democracy when a Swiss tourist was gang raped when on a cycling holiday with her husband.

The couple had camped for the night in the central state of Madhya Pradesh. It was then that a group of five men armed with sticks and at least one gun attacked their camp and repeatedly raped the 39-year-old woman in front of her husband.

Then, a few days after the Swiss case, a story appeared in the British papers about another women backpacking around the former Land of the Raj. The 31-year-old British woman says she was forced to jump 4.5m from a second floor window to escape a hotel manager who wanted to sexually assault her.

The nightmare had started at 3.45am when the manager knocked on her door at the Agra Mahal hotel, near the Taj Mahal. She answered the door to be told that he wanted to give her an oil massage and a shower.

She refused, pushed him out of her room, and bolted the door. At 5am he was still trying to use hotel keys to get in and had been joined by a security guard. The woman, fearing gang rape, jumped out of the window.

Luckily she landed on a first floor balcony, avoiding the 9m drop if she had hit the ground.

Ranjana Kumari, an Indian women’s rights campaigner, said the backpacker’s decision to jump from her window reflected the “environment of fear” in India.

One woman is raped every 20 minutes in India, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. But police estimate only four out of 10 rapes are reported, largely due to victims’ fear of being shamed by their families and communities. But even when women find the courage to make a police report, little happens. In New Delhi alone, of more than 600 rape cases filed last year, just one resulted in a conviction.

Sexual assault, rape, and gang rape are not social problems confined to India, and low reporting, prosecution, and conviction rates pervade worldwide.

However, what singles India out is the sharp increase in incidence and the heinous barbarity.

So why is this happening? What is going on in the world’s ninth richest economy that women are now increasingly scared of being brutalised on the streets, that they can’t board a bus, stay in a hotel alone, or camp with their husband?

If we really want to examine this, we must look at the lot of Indian women.

India is simply not a good country in which to be a woman. Although the constitution guarantees equality, it doesn’t exist on the ground as society is dominated by caste hierarchy and patriarchy. Women from all backgrounds, tribal people, people with disabilities, and those from lower castes, all face exclusion. But women in particular are at risk of dowry death or dowry torture if their families can’t trump up a satisfactory dowry

Baby girls and young girls are also more at risk in India than anywhere in the world, according to the United Nations. The Indian child rights organisation CRY estimates say that about 12m girls are born in India very year, however, one million of these girls die by the age of one. In Odisha, on the north-eastern coast, the ratio of child females to males has decreased from 953:1,000 in 2011 to 934:1,000 in 2011. It’s a phenomenon that’s repeated all over India and is seen as an indication of female feticide and the continued preference for boy children.

“Dowries are still engrained in Indian culture. Parents can destroy themselves financially to pay a dowry and that is why girl children are less favoured than boys,” said Paul Healy, Trócaire’s former India programme manager.

But with increased exposure to consumerism, dowry demands are becoming greater and greater, according to National Alliance of Women in Odisha (NAWO).

“Before it used to be less, but now slowly, slowly newer kinds of demands are being made. Also the marriage itself has become a two- or three-day affair now. Very expensive. We have systems like if he’s an engineer you pay this much, if he’s a doctor then you pay this much. Even an army officer you pay this much. You have minimum and maximum that you have to pay,” said NAWO’s Lalita Missal.

When a woman’s family don’t meet dowry expectations, the young bride can face living hell whether the family are rich or poor, upper caste or lower caste.

“Many women suffer because of promises that are made but cannot be kept. And so when a woman goes to her in-laws’ house, she is taunted. There is also emotional abuse and she can be told she cannot keep contact with her own family.

“Sometimes what they do is poison her; they can kill her with weapons, throttle her or bride burning — that is common. They pour kerosene and burn her alive. If you burn the body you lose all evidence, that is the best way to kill the wife and then you can say the stove burst and she was killed by that, or the gas burst and she was killed by that. Then with one wife killed, they can get another girl and another dowry.”

Just last week the minister for agriculture had to resign ‘on moral grounds’ as his daughter-in-law had taken a dowry case against him.

Not many families are convicted of dowry abuse or death. The conviction rate stands at just 3%.

Another consequence of infanticide and the falling female-male ratio is that with women in short supply, incidences of human trafficking have soared in recent years as women are abducted and brought to other states to act as unpaid household and sexual slaves as the men can’t find local wives.

India is also one of the most unequal societies on Earth. Despite being home to one third of the world’s poor, and having child malnourishment rates twice that of sub-Saharan Africa, it has more billionaires than the UK, with its top ten richest people having a combined wealth of €115bn.

It is a country of mindblowing contrast where cataclysmic economic developments are taking place in urban areas due to the country’s prowess in fields such as IT. In the cities, a burgeoning middle class is rapidly embracing consumerism, but in rural areas most people remain impoverished as the winds of change pass them by. India is a world where the old and the new, the traditional and the modern, clash frequently and many see the rise in extreme violence as a reflection of societal change.

A retired professor of sociology from the Jawaharlal University in New Delhi, Deepanker Gupta, told Deutsche Welle how he believes Indian boys’ upbringing has led to a damaged mindset across the country.

“Men are superior, women should submit, that is the abiding ethic that they grow up with,” he said. Unemployment and alcohol abuse, which are rampant problems in the north, don’t help either. He believes the fact that rape, especially gang rape, is more common in places like India or South Africa than in the Western world had to do with the mindset of some of the men there.

“It is all a show of power. Men get together and exaggerate each other’s ideological flaws, upbringing, and status. So they see a woman in a vulnerable position and use force on her.”

Last week, I was in India looking at projects being run by Trócaire in Odisha in the north-east, including projects aimed at improving gender balance. In India, the development agency works to build women’s and men’s ability to recognise the injustices that affect women, to help support them to hold an often unaccountable government to account and achieve gender-just changes in policies and practices.

Working with local partners like NAWO, they go into villages and help empower the locals so they become aware of and so independently seek the rights they are entitled to under Indian law. The women at the projects have set up ‘self-help’ groups where they save money as a community and have brought in anti-alcohol policies in villages where men were drinking all the proceeds of the family market stall. So empowered have they become that growing numbers have become elected members of the local government, or panchayat. This progress for women at panchayat and state level has not been without consequence however, according to women’s groups.

NAWO views gang rape as evidence of increasing attempts by some Indian men “to re-assert male power” in the face of Indian women’s growing independence.

They say gang rape is becoming increasingly common across the country as is rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment.

Not unlike Ireland and Europe, there is also the growing problem of ‘blue cds’, whereby young women are unknowingly videoed by their boyfriends having sex or performing a sex act, and the subsequent video is sold locally in markets, an act that is seen as destroying an Indian woman’s and her family’s all-important good name. Such a cd can lead to the girl being abandoned by her family.

“I don’t think that kind of gang rape is anything to do with sexual, it’s basically about male power, about saying ‘you cannot do this or you cannot do that’. There are many young girls who are defying the normal rule of being demure and shy and are becoming more outgoing, taking up jobs, going out more, not scared, not being subdued by the cultural norms we have,” said Lalita Missal of NAWO. According to Paul Healy, Trócaire’s former programme manager in India, the victim of the Delhi bus gang rape was savagely killed as she dared to go out with a boy and at 8.30pm.

Traditionally, unmarried women and girls are not allowed in the company of men, other than their family, at any time of day. Girls, in general, are also expected to stay at home after 6pm.

Lalita agrees: “The people said ‘why did she go out with the boy at that time of night?’ It is breaking a kind of norm that was there. What happened to her, the men think, is like teaching a lesson so no other girl dares to do that. This kind of message is that if you will violate our rules, then look at what happens.”

Indian women are being encouraged and supported by the NAWO, which works in partnership with Trócaire to assert their rights more. The empowerment of women has been proven internationally to reap enormous benefits for the education, healthcare, and standard of living of the wider family. But in patriarchal India, male resistance is clearly brutal.

“The brutality of these rapes can also be seen as a response to the ivory tower that Indian women are put into in India. The perception is that women should be pure, untouchable and so they are placed away, hidden away and have no control over their lives,” says Paul Healy.

For NAWO, the challenges of trying to hold the government accountable for women are manifold. This is a country where the chief minister for justice in the state of Odisha will not talk to NAWO as he “won’t talk to women”. This won’t stop the women, however, who persist in asking regularly for a meeting, believing if they outline their cause he will change his view.

Inequality is ingrained in Indian society because of the caste system, but wealth or privilege won’t protect women from often sickening repercussions if they are seen as having stepped out of line. In fact, many lower caste and tribal women often have more day-to-day freedom as they may have to work to eat, while higher caste women are effectively imprisoned for fear of them damaging their reputation.

Sexual abusers in India appear far more blatant, seeming to less fear the wrath of the law than in Western countries. But just like the West, the same unspoken culture of ‘did she ask for it? ’ exists.

“In India, the whole character of a woman is made so big and all the onus is placed on her to preserve it. So she is the one that is blamed, not the rapist. She’s the one they talk about. Why did she go out at that time? Why did she go outside with that person? Or she did have an affair with that man before so that’s why he took advantage. We need to break that myth. It is not our responsibility if somebody rapes us,” said Lalita.

But already, India and its people are retreating to the past. Since the Delhi bus rape, there have been notices posted at all boarding houses in Odisha, where students and young working women live, ordering all females not to venture outside after 5pm. They cannot go to the library, cannot go for a walk, cannot go to a café to check their email or Facebook.

The Delhi bus gang rape brought rapid condemnation from the international community and brought tens of thousands of protesting young Indians on to city streets from Delhi to Mumbai to Calcutta.

The government took their anger on board and a commission was established which took depositions from up to 1,000 interest groups, including the NAWO, and formulated a report, in just a month, which formed the basis for comprehensive new sexual violence legislation. Just last week, on the day that the British girl jumped from her hotel window, this legislation was made law.

Prior to the Delhi case, rape in India was defined as ‘penetration by the penis’, but now its definition has been expanded to include the insertion of any object. Disrobing a woman in public, acid throwing, voyeurism, and stalking are now all illegal sexual offences. Police are now also legally obliged to make a first instance report when any woman complains of sexual assault, and complaints have to be investigated within a certain time frame.

If the police shrug off complaints, or don’t take them seriously, it’s a punishable offence. Under the new legislation, rapists also face a minimum sentence of 20 years and the death penalty if a victim dies or is left in a vegetative state. A rapist faced seven to 10 years in jail under the old laws.

India now has some of the toughest sexual assault legislation in the world but will it be enforced? Will cultural attitudes soften so more women find the courage to come forward and make complaints, despite the risk to their reputations? Will men, from the farmer, to the stall holder, to the police officer and politician, look at sexual violence anew?

NAWO believe that India needs a conversation about masculinity and about how masculinity is not synonymous with superiority. Global professor of law at Jindal Global Law School, Ratna Kapur, agrees.

“To confront the hatred that is now manifesting itself in the most egregious ways is to move forward as a society. We need to think about how we can handle women’s equality in ways that are not perceived as threatening. That demands greater responsibility on the part of parents as well as society not to raise sons in a way in which they are indoctrinated with a sense of superiority and privilege. There is also a need on the part of young men to be actively involved in their schools and communities in advocating women’s equality rights,” he wrote in the The Hindu.

Yet, of course, the eyebrow-raising responses to rape that can be found in every corner of the world are still being trotted out in India.

After the Swiss tourist rape, the Madhya Pradesh home minister told the Hindustan Times the incident was “unfortunate”, but added that the Swiss tourists should have registered their whereabouts with police. “This is the system but it’s not being followed,” he said.

What does he mean? That if a person doesn’t follow the system, it’s OK for these men to gang rape?

The international image of India is now at risk after the Swiss tourist rape, and with tourism and travel projected to contribute nearly 8% of India’s GDP growth over the next 10 years, the government will fight to protect this.

On the day that the Swiss tourist was attacked, Indian media reported that another woman in the same state was gang raped on a moving bus in the middle of the day. According to Time magazine, “widespread mistrust of police, understaffed forces, and the stretched capacity of the courts” are all seen to play into the hands of offenders .

Lalita Missal has fought to change jaundiced views of women all her life. She says the new legislation is only the start. Women’s organisations will now have to lobby like never before to maximise upon the newfound outrage.

“Changing the mindset? I do not know. It’s a very difficult question to answer. That kind of organisation and mobilising of young people last December, the government, they’d never seen that in this country before. So for the first time, crimes against women have become a major issue for all political parties. So with the elections next year, I think we need to take advantage of that and ask for better policies.

“Government’s changed attitudes? I don’t know whether this is an election gimmick or whether the government is really serious because they had to do it. The youth who were involved in getting this law promulgated, I don’t know if they realise how they need to follow it up so things get really implemented.”


The National Alliance of Women in Odisha (NAWO) is seeing an increasing number of rape, gang rape and sexual harassment cases. They believe many are being justified by the men as the girl ‘dared to defy’ accepted norms in India. In one recent case, a young girl filed a sexual harassment case against a sitting judge, an advocate general.

“Because she raised her voice against him, because she complained, she received threats that she would be gang raped. And she was gang raped,” said Lalita Missal of NAWO.

Last year another young girl was witness to the rape and murder of her friend. She made a statement to the police and soon received threats of rape but stood firm: “I saw this happen in front of me, I’m going to give witness to that.” She too was subsequently gang raped and murdered.

India is broken into 28 states. Each state is composed of a number of districts and each district is controlled by a local government body called a panchayat.

In last year’s elections, 64% of the seats went to women. But there is little protection in numbers or in holding a local government seat.

“We know elected panchayat members who have been killed and murdered because they raised their voices over corruption. Immediately they are questioned,” said Lalita.

“Even panchayat members are at risk when they start taking decisions or actions for themselves. In our district, there were two cases where the husbands of the members have been murdered because in corruption cases, their wives raised their voices.

“In many cases, we have also seen lower caste women paraded naked if they dare to question how money is being spent on public projects”.

In Nabarangapur district a few months back, they were constructing a road and a woman on the panchayat asked how much they spent and how much was given to the project.

“Four men working for the contractor disrobed her on the street and beat her up and made her walk up and down the road.”


- India is ranked 129 out of 147 countries in the Gender Equality Index, behind Bangladesh and Rwanda.

- Women have a significantly lower literacy rate than men with 48% able to read and write compared to 73% of men.

They also have a lower participation in formal employment, poor political representation, and experience more violence than men.

- Dowry deaths, female infanticide or the killing of young baby girls, domestic violence, and trafficking are on the rise in Odisha.

- Due to infanticide, the adult sex ratio is 972 females to 1,000 males.


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