Sexual Assault in India: How a rising number of reported rapes might not mean what you think

Priya is a survivor of gang-rape. She lived in a small rural village in India before she was banished for bringing shame to her family. The men who raped her were also from her village. She had known one of them since she was a child.  Her close relationship with the Hindu Goddess Parvati helped her to overcome her fears and she began travelling around India, educating people about gender-equality and sexual assault. And she did it all while riding a majestic Bengal tiger.

Priya is a comic book character changing the face of rape-education in India. Shes the heroine of Priyas Shakti, an innovative comic book created by Ram Devineni and Dan Goldman. The comic uses Hindu mythology to teach young people in India about the harms of rape. The comics title refers to Priyas search for empowerment after she is banished from her village.

Co-creator Devineni says that one of the most important aspects of this project was creating  a strong, identifiable female character that is relatable.” He hopes that the comic and the character of Priya, will help to end the stigma surrounding rape survivors.

Like many other activists, he was inspired to action by the brutal gang-rape of a young woman on a Delhi bus in 2012. Devineni recalls when he spoke to a Delhi police officer after the death of the young woman, the officer told him no good girl walks home alone at night.

According to the Indian National Crime Record Bureau, 93 rapes are reported every single day in India. This means that a woman or girl is sexually assaulted every 22 minutes. However, the actual number of rapes in India is suspected to be much higher. This is largely attributed to the fact that many people are unwilling or unable to report incidences of assault. It’s estimated that only one in 10 rapes are reported.

“There’s a huge problem when women go to report rapes and abuse,says Retu Jalhan. The police dont believe their stories.

Jalhan founded We Are Your Sisters, a Canadian organization that is trying to stop rape and rehabilitate survivors in India. It was that same incident on the bus in Delhi that was the turning point for Jalhan.

Her parents are immigrants from India and she says that if they had not decided to move to Canada, that girl on the bus could have been me and it could have been one of my cousins and it could have been someone I know.

According to the United Nations, one in every five women will be sexually assaulted at some point in their lives.  They define sexual violence as any sexual act, attempt to obtain a sexual act, unwanted sexual comments or advances against a persons sexuality using coercion, by any person regardless of their relationship to the victim.

For many young women in India, this sort of violence is commonplace.

“Safety is always a big concern for me wherever I go,says Namratha Ajai, a university student in Delhi. It is something that is always on my mind and I make sure that if I’m traveling alone it isn’t too dark or its in busy areas.

Ajai says its a common conversation among young women in India, especially on university campuses. Her school has a gender sensitization committee that helps stage protests and represents women who have been victimized. 

According to the NCRB, the majority of rapes are committed against women aged 18 to 30.

“Its something that bothers us a lot because we need to be careful about everything we do,she says.

Despite the efforts of many organizations like WAYS and awareness groups in India, the number of rapes seems to be climbing. There was a 35.2 per cent increase in rape incidents between 2012 and 2013, according to the NCRB. According to some, this sharp increase may actually be a sign of progress.

“Men and women are coming forward more because they feel more comfortable, emboldened, and galvanized by the fact that there has been major campaigns,says Michael Kugelman, the Senior Program Associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars in Washington D.C.

Kugelman, along with several other experts, thinks the increase in reported cases is a silver lining in a terrible situation. It means people are less likely to ignore the violent assaults in India and more likely to report them. The increase in number of reported rapes doesn’t necessarily mean that more rapes are happening.

But reporting sexual violence in India, a country awash with patriarchy, isnt always as easy as visiting the local police station. 

The stigma surrounding assault in India is so prevalent that women often fear for their lives if they were to report what happened to them. Some women, like Priya, are disowned and banished. Some are threatened with death or more rape, according to Kugelman.

When women do try and report a rape they are often not believed or blamed for causing their own misfortune. Quite often, nothing but shame comes out of reporting a rape to the largely male police force.

“There are also cases where women have been assaulted in police stations, making it more unsafe for women,Ajai notes.

The Indian authorities are beginning to realize some of their shortcomings. A police-sponsored anonymous rape-reporting machine was recently unveiled. The machine looks similar to an ATM and is a way for people to report a crime without having to enter a police station or alert their friends, family, or attacker.

Although initiatives like this are seen as a step in the right direction, the question remains of what happens after the rapes are reported. Although India recently raised the maximum prison sentence for rape to 20 years, the conviction rate was only 27 per cent in 2013 according to the NCRB.

Along  with a lack of convictions, there is also a lack of services for survivors of these crimes. In India, things like counselling or support hotlines are essentially non-existent.

Kugelman says that the whole problem of rape in India really comes down to a perception that women simply are not to be seen as deserving a level respect, the same level of respect that men are.  This is evident in all aspects of Indias highly patriarchal culture.

Jalhan notes that everything, from the concept of the dowry, to Indias tradition of arranged marriage, reinforces the idea that women are lesser than men and are objects to be used at will.

Along with Indias emergence as a rising power in the world has come modernization and a move into the workforce for Indian women. According to Kugelman, this is one reason we see such violent rapes happening.

“This has caused a backlash from those in society who really have no interest in seeing women progress economically and its very telling and tragic,he says.  When you look at some of these reported incidents in the past year or so, its not just deeply impoverished women who are being victimized, youre seeing women who are comfortably entrenched in the middle class.

Kugelman says that while women are being attacked for their emergence into society, they are also being attacked because of their caste.

Despite the fact that the caste system in India has been banned for decades, the discrimination is still prevalent in rural communities.  Women who are seen as untouchablesare facing a double bias according to Kugelman.

But, as the number of reported rapes increase, so does awareness of the issue. Kugleman points out that India is very concerned about their global image, which should act as a catalyst for change. The violent rape cases reported in the media act as a blemish on that image, he says.

Jalhan notes that in order for this change to actually occur, several things need to happen.

“More women in politics, more women in law enforcement and more women controlling their financial freedom.

She also points out the good that an educational campaign could do. Sexual education is currently not mandatory in the Indian school system and Jalhan says that teaching young people about consent and respect would be a key piece of the puzzle.

This is exactly what Devineni is trying to accomplish with Priyas Shakti, which is aimed at pre-teens and teenagers.

“In India that is really the audience you want to target because they are not fully adults yet and are curious about the world and are trying to understand their world and their situation in it.

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