Some images stay branded on your mind. The brutality visited on three young girls, before their bodies were found in a well; the pain of a five-year-old whose rapist used candles and an oil bottle to violate her further; the anger of the Dalit rape survivor in Uttar Pradesh who was told by a policeman, “Who will rape you at your age?”
Since the brutal gang rape and death of a young woman in December 2012, the Indian middle class has made its collective discovery of the fact of rape. For many, the instinctive compassion, sadness and empathy they feel at the atrocity of the day are matched only by a growing despair.
Television anchors asked, with touching naïveté, why the protests, demonstrations and new laws of the last few months have not “stopped rape.” No laws anywhere in the world have “stopped” rape, any more than laws have stopped murder. But better laws, changes in policing, and societal change have sometimes combined to bring both sexual violence and homicide rates down in several countries.
Danger of fatigue
Behind the outrage, there is the very real danger of compassion fatigue. There is only so much in the way of traumatic news that anyone can stand to hear or see. We’re cutting through decades of mainstream denial about the extreme violence that women in India often experience. But there’s a risk that we’re setting up a weighing scale of horror, deciding which rape deserves our empathy. (So far, collective compassion has been able to slice through class barriers, but not necessarily caste.)
The routine gang rape of Dalit women, the brutal rapes of children too young to have learned the word for “vagina,” the everyday rapes of women in major cities: which one of these gets the candlelight vigil of the week? There might be a tipping point, as there was with dowry deaths. We don’t really “see” dowry deaths any more, and we don’t respond to the terrible suffering inflicted on women who are killed in those cold calculations the way we used to some decades ago.
Why aren’t we outraged by the miscarriage and death of the pregnant woman who was beaten with bamboo staves and iron lathis by her husband and in-laws? Saima, 21, died in Uttar Pradesh last week. Or the woman who was strangled by her in-laws in Navi Mumbai — Madhu Yadav, 28, was allegedly killed over dowry demands in 2012. Because we haven’t been able to stop the roughly 8,000-plus recorded dowry deaths that show up on the NCRB statistics every year. Keep the spotlight focused on rape in India long enough, and people will turn away. Compassion can swiftly become helplessness, and then apathy.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We’re only beginning to understand the extent to which violence is tolerated, and found acceptable, across wide swathes of India.
Most Indian men experience a frightening amount of violence as they grow up. Indian boys are just as vulnerable as Indian girls to being abused as children (54 per cent of boys had experienced physical or sexual violence, according to a landmark 2007 study).
Boys are slightly more vulnerable to being hit or beaten by their male relatives. And as adults, they will often join communities, colleges and professions where they experience both verbal and extreme physical abuse as a matter of course. If violence looms as a threat over the lives of women, it is so tightly woven into the common experience of Indian men that it is rendered invisible.
Some years ago, Steven Pinker wrote a remarkable book about the decline of human violence over the centuries. Better reportage might make us think that we are still as violent as our ancestors, but the truth is markedly different. We have relatively fewer wars, and a very modern refusal to countenance acts of torture that were once considered acceptable.
If anything, Indians today show a decreasing tolerance for violence, and a new willingness to question old verities — for instance, the belief that women invite their own rapes, or that men have the right to rape. But if there has been a slow shift, it is towards the idea that sexual violence is unacceptable, with more and more Indians expressing anger and sadness over crimes against women, now that these are more visible.
As a society, though, we still have a very high acceptance of everyday violence — and much of this is violence experienced by men. In a key 2006 study of domestic violence in North India, Michael Koenig, Rob Stephenson, Shirin Jeejeebhoy and others made a fascinating observation.
Passed through generations
Domestic violence, they argued, is transmitted — almost like a disease — from one generation to another. “Even after control for the effects of other risk factors,” they write, “husbands who had witnessed their fathers beating their mothers as children were 4.7 times more likely to physically beat their own wives than men who had not witnessed such violence, and they were three times more likely to sexually coerce their wives.”
What is missing from India’s current obsession with rape is an assessment of what Indian men have experienced or witnessed in the way of violence. Few studies examine the impact violence has had on their lives, as either victims or perpetrators. Just as an example: in all our talk of police reform, we have no data on how many of India’s police officers have witnessed violence in their own homes and communities, or what impact this might have on their ability to respond to reports of rape, domestic and sexual violence.
We want the police to stop blaming victims for the violence done to them, to stop trying to silence those who report rapes by either bribing or threatening them. In that case, we need to understand how to undo the beliefs surrounding violence — especially violence visited on women — that the police might carry into their workplaces from their personal lives.
If we’re serious about “stopping rape”, or at least bringing down the high incidence of sexual violence in India, we should start with the violence we can attempt to control. That implies tackling our own homes and communities.
This requires long-term change, though, and what most Indians want right now are easily implementable solutions. The suggestions for solving the problem of sexual violence are many. Some want the death penalty —highly problematic given the slow and unreliable justice system. Some suggest keeping women corralled at home, which ignores the reality of changing migration flows, and the fact that many more Indian women join the workforce each year. Some demand castration of rapists, though there is little evidence to suggest that castration is a deterrent. And there are regular calls for more and better policing, or for the establishment of rape crisis centres.
What actually works? The answer might startle Indians. The economist, Steven Levitt, wrote a brilliant paper in 2004, asking why crime rates dropped sharply in the U.S. in the 1990s. One sobering conclusion is that it’s unrealistic to expect just one kind of crime to lessen. In the case of the U.S., according to Levitt’s data (and in several parts of Europe, according to Pinker), crime rates dropped uniformly, rape cases dropping along with homicides and other kinds of violent crime. Significantly, the drop in crime rates was universal — crime went down across geographical areas and across different economic classes.
Factors that had, in Levitt’s opinion, little or no effect on the fall in crime rates ranged from “better policing” to “capital punishment”, to “shifting demographics”. But a rise in the number of police personnel, irrespective of whether they were better trained or not, made a big difference. So did a rise in the number of people in the prison system. The other two factors Levitt cites are particular to the U.S. — the receding crack cocaine epidemic, and the legalisation of abortion, because unwanted children were found to be far more likely to engage in crime, chiefly because of neglect or cruelty from their families.
In India, there is little data on what has actually had an impact on crime rates, in the few areas where they might have dropped. Do we need to increase the number of police officers, along with pressing for better training? If imprisoning perpetrators has an effect on crime rates, we might want to consider that many crimes, including rape, have poor conviction rates.
There must be other factors, particular to India, that influence crime rates. Koenig’s paper hints, for instance, that if domestic violence is transmitted between generations, we should work on reversing the lessons some men learn from witnessing violence in the home. We have to stop seeing rape in isolation. It is part of a bigger problem, linked to the casual Indian acceptance of violence in our homes, schools and clans as natural and inevitable.
Tomorrow’s headlines will bring their raft of despair, the almost unbearable pain of violence and rape forced on the innocent and the unwilling. Instead of giving in to that despair or that apathy, it might be more useful to start looking at crime and violence as something that should be tackled in the same way as polio or malaria, or any other disease. If studies from the U.S. and Europe demonstrate anything at all, it is that the violence we take for granted is not inevitable. Find the right levers, and change could happen faster than we currently believe possible.
(Nilanjana S. Roy is a New Delhi-based writer)