Recently, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) released its annual Crime in India report for 2012. It reported 24,923 police-registered rape cases across India, a slight increase of three per cent compared to last year. In Delhi city, the increase was much sharper: there were 585 reported rapes, an increase of 29.1 per cent from last year. No doubt in the coming days, headlines will exclaim a rise in rape across India, especially in Delhi. Perhaps they will report that Delhi remains the rape capital of India. While this may or may not be true, these types of headlines do not tell the full story.
Yes, rapes reported to police have increased. But it is wrong to assume that more reported rapes mean actual rapes have increased too. In India, as is the case across the world, sexual assaults reported to police reflect “the tip of the iceberg” of the reality of sexual assault beneath society’s cold, murky waters.
Children as victims
Frankly speaking, in a country with 1.2 billion people, the NCRB’s statistic on reported rape cases is a very low number. In contrast, a 2007 Ministry of Women and Child Development study surveyed 12,447 children across 13 States in India. The study revealed that 20.9 per cent of the children surveyed had suffered severe forms of sexual abuse, which includes sexual assault, making a child fondle private parts, making a child exhibit private body parts and being photographed in the nude. Given that children comprise more than one-third of India’s population, you begin to understand the tremendous gap between reported and actual incidents of sexual assault across all sectors of society. This gap points to a culture of silence that resists reporting, or even acknowledging, that sexual assault has occurred.
Keeping this in mind, there is a more hopeful way to look at the higher reported rapes in 2012: more victims and their families overcame the pressure to keep quiet about sexual abuse. They preferred justice to silence.
The media plays a powerful role in changing this culture of silence towards sexual abuse. For example, the media’s focused coverage on the rape and eventual murder of the 23 year-old physiotherapy student on December 16, 2012 keyed massive public outcries, which pressured the government to strengthen sexual assault laws. As a result, the government enacted the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013, which broadens the definition of rape, increases protection for rape victims and makes punishments harsher. In the same way, if the media responsibly highlights the wrongs of sexual assault and the importance of acknowledging that it occurred, more victims will be encouraged to demand justice. But this leads to another problem.
One fact safely drawn from the NCRB’s statistic on reported rapes is that more rape cases are entering India’s criminal justice system. It is a system overburdened and ill-equipped to effectively investigate and adjudicate its cases, which results in weak police investigation, long delays for courts to complete trials, low conviction rates and insensitive treatment of victims. In fact, according to the NCRB, in 2012 there was only a 23.3 per cent conviction rate for rape cases in India.
Making matters worse, a large number of “elopement cases” clogs the criminal justice system: cases where a young girl and boy fall in love and run away together. The girl’s unhappy parents file kidnapping charges, police track down the wayward couple, and the parents compel their daughter to claim she was raped. Generally speaking, elopement cases become apparent soon after they are reported to police.
An organisation called Counsel to Secure Justice conducted an informal study on rape cases in Delhi that analysed over 350 rape trial judgments from 2011. Interestingly, nearly one-third of the cases it analysed were elopement cases. The average case took approximately 32 months to wind its way through the criminal justice system and reach judgment. Not surprisingly, these cases had a less than an eight per cent conviction rate. The victim girl, who is the key witness in the case, would often recant her story when she testified, destroying the case.
Ultimately, extensive media coverage and strong laws do not mean much if victims who report sexual assault have no faith in the system that delivers justice. The media should look more deeply into the NCRB statistics and report on stories that prevent justice; the stories to which the statistics point. That way, the media can pressure the government to ensure that the criminal justice system works for victims who have the courage to report sexual assault crimes. They can play an invaluable role in breaking down the culture of silence that shrouds sexual abuse.
(Jonathan Derby is a U.S. licensed attorney who has extensive experience in human rights at grass-roots level in India.)