Tuesday, March 29, 2011

News Flash

Rape in India: A Cultural Clash

The New York Times recently ran a story about an Indian man and woman who, seeking alone time together, met in a private spot off the beaten path of the suburb of Ghaziabad outside New Delhi. All they wanted was a moment of solitude, but what they got was shockingly different. Five drunk, young, men from a nearby farming village approached the couple. The men proceeded to gang rape the young woman and beat and rob the young man of his laptop and cell phone. This general animosity and cultural clash between the people of the city and the people of the villages has been generating a lot of tension in India. The incidence of rape has increased dramatically in the past 30 years. Although there are speculations as to why this has occurred, the widely held belief is that it is a result of a clash between “old and new India” and their vastly different cultural standpoints (Polgreen, 1). The underlying cultural tensions in the area are clearly running high at the detriment of young women.

The statistics of rape in India are most definitely shocking. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) the incidence of rape has increased by 700% since they started keeping track in 1971. As a point of comparison, all other crimes have only grown 300% since the NCRB began keeping track in 1953 (Gandhi, 1). This means that the number of rapes a day has grown from seven to 53 in only 40 years (Gandhi, 1). Clearly something has changed to make these numbers jump so drastically in such a short period of time. The major city of India, New Delhi, is under especially close scrutiny. Nearly one fourth of all the rapes reported in the cities of India in 2009 were in New Delhi (Harikrishnan, 1). Although all these statistics are incredibly disturbing, the most disheartening figure has to be that 85% of women in the capital felt unsafe and feared being sexually harassed, according to a survey by the United Nations in 2010 (Harikrishan, 1). This should never be the case and reflects incredibly poorly on the government, law enforcement, and bureaucracy of New Delhi.

One theory for this extreme rise in rape is that more and more women are beginning to work in the cities. New Delhi is one of the fastest growing cities in India and this year alone its economy is expected to grow 9 percent (Polgreen, 2). The workforce has almost doubled in the past 15 years to accommodate this growth which means that many more women are now working outside the home (Polgreen, 2). This phenomenon is a shock to traditional Indians who are used to women staying home and taking on a more conventional role. A leading women’s rights activist, Ranjana Kumari, said “There is a lot of tension between the people who are traditional in their mind-set and the city that is changing so quickly. Men are not used to seeing so many women in the country occupying public spaces,” (Polgreen, 2). Many men are extremely uncomfortable and hostile towards this new arrangement, and have taken out their resentment through aggression. This is an especially common sentiment in the villages and more rural towns outside of the city. These men are used to seeing their women covered, modest, and meek. In Raispur, the village where the rapists were from, women “live hemmed-in lives, covering their faces with shawls in front of strangers and seldom roaming beyond the village,” (Polgreen, 3). Thus, the women of the city, who are independent, self-reliant, and most likely less modest, are seen as a personal affront to the traditional culture. Their modern Western values are a threat to the traditional culture that men, like the inhabitants of Raispur, are accustomed to.

However, the major difficulties of stopping violence against women are the pervading cultural norms that continue to hem women in. Although they are becoming increasingly modern, Indian women can’t seem to shake certain customs that are imbedded in their lives from childhood. There is a certain amount of shame associated with rape in Indian culture. Many women see it as the ultimate destruction of their honor. This allows men to rape women without very much likelihood of punishment. Deputy police commissioner in New Dehli, Dhaliwal, says “They have no doubt they will get away with it,” because of the cultural norms instilled in Indian women to see rape as shameful rather than inherently wrong (Polgreen, 2). The girl who was raped in the New York Times article refused to help with the investigation because, according to her, “The police will not be able to restore my honor,”(Polgreen, 4). Because of this type of attitude among women, Mr. Dhaliwal estimates that only one in 10 rape cases is actually reported (Polgreen, 4). Along with that issue are the problems of bureaucracy in India. Even when women do report the crime, the process of going to trial for a rape case can be so frustrating and intimidating for the victim that they decide to drop the case (Dhoundial, 1). This could be why the conviction rate for rape is only 27%, a shockingly low number considering the frequency with which it occurs (Dhoundial, 1). The government will need to take serious action if it has any hope of increasing the number of convictions and decreasing the incidence of rape.

Although the numbers are extremely disheartening, New Delhi has been making an effort to create change. Law enforcement officials claim that the rates of rape have actually dropped in the last four years. They attribute this decrease to more aggressive policing efforts combined with structural changes. For example, India has created women only train cars and often requires companies to escort women home if they are employed on the late shift (Polgreen, 2). These modifications and adjustments are a step in the right direction. However, the fact that women are scared of being out alone at night for fear of sexual harassment and rape isn’t something that can be cured just by structural or institutional changes. The safety of women will require a complete change in the way people think, especially men. It will have to be a grassroots effort from the ground up to change the cultural expectations of women. Indian men will be forced to accept that women can and should work outside the home and must get used to seeing them there. This is the only way women will find safety outside of their homes in India, something that every person should inherently be entitled to.


"Rapes of Women Show Clash of Old and New India" by Lydia Polgreen

"Rape: India's Fastest Growing Crime" by Shreya Dhoundial

"Shame: Rape is India's Fastest Growing Crime" by Jatin Gandhi

"60 Registered Rapes a Day" by K. S. Harikrishnan

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