Rape, rhetoric and reality

A statistically faulty focus on rape has led to a misdiagnosis and a worsening of India’s real problem: women’s autonomy

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:29 pm IST

Published - December 19, 2014 01:18 am IST

The recently r >eported rape of a young woman in a taxi in Delhi has brought back attention to India’s sexual violence problem. The spotlight has been on the country since the horrific >rape of a young woman aboard a bus in December 2012, an attack that killed her. The beginning of a new conversation on women is welcome, but this two-year focus on rape as the key indicator of women’s status in India has been both statistically faulty and counterproductive.

Where does India actually stand in global comparison? The official source of inter-country data on reported rape is the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). In 2012, the most recent year for which the UNODC has collected cross-country data, there were 24,923 reported rapes in India, or 4.26 reported rapes for every 1,00,000 women. This places India at 85 out of 121 countries for which data for 2012 is available. At the top of this list is a mix of developing African nations and industrialised western nations — Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland and Sweden. The United States comes in at 16 and Brazil at 18. It is, however, widely acknowledged that the rate of unreported sexual violence in Indian society is far higher than official statistics would indicate, and that this is likely to be a bigger problem in India than in other countries, as it is a more patriarchal society.

UN Women, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, compiled the rates of unreported partner and non-partner sexual violence across 99 countries which had recently conducted large-size household surveys. These are surveys that have been conducted under international standards. In India, for instance, the Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) were funded and monitored by the United States Agency for International Development, and in Brazil, the surveys were conducted by the World Health Organization. This makes these surveys of acceptable quality and comparable across countries. While the surveys look at physical and sexual violence, I looked at sexual violence only. I left out countries that grouped sexual and physical violence together.

First, I looked at sexual violence perpetrated by anyone, whether an intimate partner or a non-partner. India reported 8.5 rapes for every 100 women over their lifetimes, based on the answers they gave household-level surveyors. Of the 99 countries studied by UN Women, 55 asked women if they had experienced sexual violence at the hands of an intimate partner or any other person; India came in at 39. As of December 2012, the most recent year for which global data is available, at the top were Ethiopia, Ghana and Finland, where nearly half of all women surveyed said that they had experienced sexual violence perpetrated by a partner or non-partner during their lifetimes. Sexual violence within relationships is globally more common than that perpetrated by strangers, and India is no exception. Ten per cent of women in India reported having experienced sexual violence by their husbands during their lifetime. In the UN Women database, this places India at 43 out of 86 countries with comparable data.

Both sets of statistics together place India towards the middle to lower end of the global scale of sexual violence. Yet, for the last two years, the rhetoric around rape in India has not reflected this.

None of this is to say that sexual violence is not a problem in India, or that there are “acceptable levels” of rape. Moreover, sexual violence statistics mask the level of sexual threat and resulting insecurity that are constant companions for women on Indian streets, even when they do not result in violent rape.

Women’s autonomy However, this statistically faulty focus on rape has led to both a misdiagnosis and a worsening of India’s real problem when it comes to women: autonomy. Just one in five women has her name on her house’s papers and four out of five need permission to visit a doctor, the India Human Development Survey revealed. Just one in five women is in the workforce, making India’s workforce one of the most gender-biased in the world.

Part of the reason India’s official sexual violence statistics are low is this lack of female autonomy. With >rape within marriages not considered a crime in India, and the vast majority of women over the age of 15 being married, police statistics only represent that small proportion of sexual violence that occurs outside of the marital relationship. This lack of autonomy interacts with sexual violence statistics in one more key way. As The Hindu ’s investigation of 543 judgements on rape in Delhi’s district courts showed earlier this year (“ >The many shades of rape cases in Delhi ,” July 29), the largest part of what is classified as rape is actually parental criminalisation of consensual sexual relationships, often when it comes to inter-caste and inter-religious couples. Yet India’s official rape statistics are used as shorthand for a lack of public safety, not a lack of autonomy.

Just one in five women is in the workforce, making India’s workforce one of the most gender-biased in the world.

Women’s movement outside their marital homes, already restricted, is in danger of further shrinking in the face of the disproportionate focus on public sexual violence over the last two years. Instead of pushback against the curtailment of women’s freedoms, these are in fact being sacrificed at the altar of women’s safety: the promotion of toilets inside the house as a measure for women’s safety is just one example of this. On a reporting trip in Fatehpur district in Uttar Pradesh earlier this year, the male head of a rural household told me: “When my son got married, I built a toilet for my daughter-in-law. She is not to leave the house for anything — I don’t want her to leave the house to go to the toilet either.” This is a sentiment widely repeated and, moreover, rewarded by official policy.

The right direction If India is serious about allowing something substantive to emerge from the conversation that began two years ago, it needs two things. One, the recognition that the vast majority of sexual violence experienced by women is within marriages — 97.7 per cent of all sexual violence, as per the DHS survey used in the UN Women database, is perpetrated by husbands. Two, the acknowledgement that while sexual violence exists and every act is unacceptable and deserves prosecution, it isn’t at the epidemic levels that the last two years of reporting have implied.

What is epidemic is the culturally embedded restriction on women’s autonomy, across caste, class and religious groups. Addressing this might sometimes directly contradict what “women’s safety” might demand, but it is the right direction to go in, both statistically and morally.


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