This we know: few days go by without newspaper headlines announcing a violent sexual assault on a woman who could have been us or a loved one. This is less well known: the victims we read about are less likely to get anything resembling justice than ever before. Since 1973, ever more women have summoned the courage to walk into a police station, growing from 2,919 that year to 20,262 in 2010. In the same period, conviction rates dropped from 37 per cent to 26 per cent. Police attitudes are a key part of the problem. In a recent exposé, Tehelka magazine covertly videotaped several mid-level Delhi Police officers endorsing the view that rape victims had somehow contributed to the assault they suffered by what they wore, or the way they behaved. Earlier, the Director General of Police in Andhra Pradesh said that “provocative fashionable dresses” could be “one of the factors” behind the increase in rape. With the police espousing such ridiculous views, it is hardly surprising that rape cases are not properly investigated. Forensic resources are conspicuous by their absence. Newspaper headlines about Delhi or Gurgaon being “rape capitals” exacerbate the problem, incentivising the police to make it harder for women to seek justice in the hope of manufacturing better crime figures.

Finding answers to these problems is easier said than done. For one, anti-women attitudes remain resilient even in relatively progressive western societies. In the 1960s, Harry Kalven and Hans Zeisel showed how U.S. juries go to extraordinary lengths to be lenient with defendants when there is any suggestion of “contributory behaviour” by victims — such as hitchhiking, or simply talking to men at parties. In a 2005 survey conducted by Amnesty International in the United Kingdom, an astounding 26 per cent of respondents said they “thought a woman was totally or partially responsible for being raped if she was wearing revealing clothes”. Katie Ewing, in a 2009 study, pointed out that conviction rates in the U.K. had fallen from 25 per cent in 1985 to under 5 per cent in 2008, with juries proving reluctant to convict except in cases where there was compelling forensic evidence. Though focussed work to reshape police attitudes can help, there should be no illusions about what can be achieved. There is a large welter of scholarship that shows sensitisation courses, for example, have few long term results — sometimes merely teaching police officers the language they need to cloak their bigotry. The real threat to women comes from the men they live and work with, not the stranger lurking on a dark, ill-lit road. For victims to get justice, we must engage in a far larger effort to eradicate the toxic attitudes passed from fathers to sons.

More In: Editorial | Opinion