New India Rape Case: Rape in India is Encouraged by Poverty and Gender Inequality


Up to eight men gang raped a 39-year-old Swiss woman camping with her husband between the towns of Datia and Orchaa in India. The men beat the husband with sticks and forced him to watch the brutal crime after tying him to a tree. They also stole the couple's phone, laptops and rupees worth around $180. The couple had been bicycling to the Taj Mahal.

The woman received treatment at a hospital in Gwalior. She has not been identified; in pictures of her being lead to the courtroom she wears a hood. Besides concern for privacy, there is a stigma against rape survivors in the country.

Thirteen men were detained but none have been charged. Six have already been released. A reporter described the region as "known for its banditry" and "fairly lawless and it is also very poor." 

The case comes at a time when violence against women in India is in the world's spotlight. Rape in India has been encouraged by poverty and gender inequality. In December, six men gang raped a 23-year-old woman on a bus in New Delhi. She was violated with an iron rod also used to beat her male companion. She later died in a Singapore hospital after doctors were forced to remove her infected intestines. 

The driver of the bus participated in the attack. He was found hanging in prison last week. The police say he hanged himself; his family and lawyers say there was foul play involved. 

The incident spurred protests calling on the government to do more to protect women. They received attention around the world.

Also in December, a Punjabi survivor of gang rape committed suicide after police refused to register her crime, let alone arrest her rapists.

The broader context of this extreme violence is one of extreme poverty. In Uttar Pradesh, many young women have been raped because they have to go to the bathroom in the fields outside their house. The average wage there is $1.25 per day.

The poorest and the lower castes, especially the Dalits, formerly known as "untouchables," are the most vulnerable. SR Darapuri, vice-president of the People's Union for Civil Liberties in Uttar Pradesh, says, "90% of [rape] victims were Dalits and 85% of Dalit rape victims were underage girls." 

He also said, "the police do not want to register cases because they have been told by their political bosses to keep the crime figures low" so only one out of 10 cases is reported. 

Attitudes against rape are held back by older ideas. The female Chief Minister of West Bengal said, "earlier if men and women would hold hands, they would get caught by parents and reprimanded but now everything is so open ... Everyday rape incidents are being highlighted as if the entire state has become the land of rapists." In 2009 a Goa congressman said that women invite rape by socializing with strangers.

Roop Rekha Verma, of women's activist group Shared World, says that the stigma against survivors and the desire to marry virgins further depresses the reporting rate. Many survivors who do report are subjected to humiliating "finger tests" by doctors who probe not only for signs of assault, but also virginity. 

Even worse, once rapes are reported the standards of evidence are so high that there is only a 25% conviction rate. 

More disturbingly, the authorities may be just as culpable. Human Rights Watch (HRW) has documented the Indian military raping civilians believed to sympathize with Islamist terrorists in Kashmir. Most of the victims appear to be selected arbitrarily. The insurgents also rape civilians. 

HRW also alleges that the police in India rape women, especially those from lower castes and minority groups. Women are detained on false charges or even simply held for ransom.

Aside from rape, women in India suffer from a deeply patriarchal society. According to the Indian Council of Global Relations, most women are victims of sexual harassment in public. A UN index measuring gender disparities in education, employment, health care, political representation and more ranked India 134 out of 187 countries, below Saudi Arabia and China.

India has laws against marital rape, sex selective abortion, and bridal dowries, but all these practices continue today. Marital rape only became illegal within the last 30 years. 

The home affairs minister appointed a panel following the December bus rape case which called for making gang rape punishable by 20 years in prison, making it a crime for not investigating sexual assault complaints, and making it a crime to consider the survivor's character or sexual history in a trial. No law has been passed yet.

Rights groups such as HRW have called for more stringent laws, punishing non-penetrative assault and inflicting harsher penalties for rapes committed by military and police officials. India is the world's largest democracy. Ending the patriarchy and the rape problems it brings looks to be its next big challenge.