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Why another high profile rape case in India will fail to tackle the causes of sexual violence

“The trial in the Mumbai gang-rape case has opened to a drowsy and ill-attended courtroom, without the crush of reporters who documented every twist in a similar case in New Delhi in which a woman died after being gang-raped on a private bus.”

New Statesman
Indian photojournalists and journalists stage a protest against the gang-rape of their female colleague in Mumbai. Image: Getty

When a student was gang-raped in Delhi in December 2012, there was a national and international outcry. The girl subsequently died of her injuries. There were major protests in India’s cities. This year, four of the five attackers were sentenced to death. There was a sudden flood of stories in domestic and international media about other instances of gang-rape in India, and soul-searching articles about why this brutal crime was so prominent.

Around the time that the Delhi gang rapists were being sentenced, a 22 year old photojournalist was gang-raped in the southern city of Mumbai. She was carrying out an assignment with a male colleague. Her attackers had allegedly previously raped four other women, who had not gone to the police after the assailants threatened to put a video of the attack on the internet. But this girl was undeterred. She immediately reported the crime. Given the timing – with the public outrage around the Delhi trial at full tilt – the authorities acted swiftly, with a level of efficiency usually reserved for terrorism cases. The five men were arrested. The trial began this month. They have all pleaded not guilty.

A shocking, detailed article in the New York Times describes the terrible events of that evening and the arrest of the attackers. Interestingly, it also notes: “The trial in the Mumbai gang-rape case has opened to a drowsy and ill-attended courtroom, without the crush of reporters who documented every twist in a similar case in New Delhi in which a woman died after being gang-raped on a private bus.” This demonstrates how popular outcries can be short, if intense. Since the Delhi case, sexual violence in India has been obsessively discussed within the country and outside it. But is it a solution any closer?

The first thing to note is that there are very few reliable statistics to gauge the real scale of the problem. Gruesome news stories abound. Last week it was reported that a 13 year old girl in Utter Pradesh was raped by three men and then set on fire. Official statistics show that 24,000 instances of sexual assault were reported last year, but given that few people report these crimes, the real figure will be much, much higher. The incentive to report crimes is not high. On top of the social stigma, conviction rates are woeful, standing at around 26 per cent.

The defendants in the Delhi rape case were sentenced to death – a highly unusual move in a rape case, but one that satisfied a public that was baying for blood. Perhaps the defendants in the Mumbai case will meet the same fate; perhaps not. While some may argue that this will act as a deterrent to those who casually commit such crimes, this is a rather short-term view. What stands out from the NYT report on the Mumbai attacks and an equally distressing report in the Guardian about the Delhi case is the casualness with which these crimes were carried out. This is indicative not just of a deeply embedded disdain for women, but of the way in which slum-dwelling urban youth have been brutalised. None of the defendants are exonerated by their poverty, but it may be difficult to address sexual violence without taking social exclusion and structural violence into account.

Gender-based violence in India starts at birth: gender-selective abortions and female infanticide means that the male-to-female population ratio is now 0.93 (worse than in 1970). There are extremely high rates of child marriage, teen pregnancy, and domestic violence. Worryingly, this is seen by many as the natural order of things. A 2012 report by UNICEF found that 57 percent of Indian boys and 53 percent of girls between the ages of 15 and 19 think wife-beating is justified.

In the aftermath of the Delhi rape case, lawmakers significantly tightened up laws on rape, increasing penalties and broadening the criteria of sexual assault crimes. This is to be welcomed – although, as I have written before, enforcing such laws in the face of wildly misogynistic social norms and hugely underfunded and understaffed police forces is another matter altogether.

In the aftermath of the Mumbai attack, Member of Parliament and leader of the Samajwadi Party, Naresh Agarwal, said that women should pay attention to what they wear and that “western culture” may be to blame. In April, a 10 year old girl in Bulandshahr was briefly arrested after she went to police to say she had been raped. In a recent rape case in Dwarka, the judge said that "girls are morally and socially bound not to indulge in sexual intercourse before a proper marriage, and if they do so, it would be to their peril and they cannot be heard crying later that it was rape."

Such attitudes and incidents are commonplace and mainstream. The legal changes are an important first step towards tackling the scourge of sexual violence in India, but they are just that: a first step. Sentencing the accused in high profile cases to death – as happened in Delhi, and may well happen in Mumbai – does not tackle the root cause of the problem, and does not mean justice for the many women whose cases stay under the radar. As the public and the press start to move on, one must hope that all the soul-searching has not been for nothing.