Horrifying sexual crimes against women and girls are an epidemic in India, which has quickly become known as “the rape capital of the world.” More than 110,000 rape cases were reported in the country between 2014 and 2016, Kiren Rijiju, Minister of State for Home Affairs told Parliament on July 18.
Rijiju’s speech came the same week that national coverage and outrage spread over 17 men who were accused of raping an 11-year-old girl in Chennai, India. The crimes took place over the course of roughly seven months and were perpetrated by locals who lived in or frequently visited the apartment building where the girl resides. Several of the men filmed the crimes on mobile phones to keep their victim silent.
Most rape crimes go unreported, meaning there are likely hundreds of thousands more cases beyond those registered. The National Family Health Survey (NFHS), which surveys almost 700,000 women, maintains the most accurate statistics about sexual violence frequency. Data from 2015-2016 that was released earlier this year can help point to the under-reporting rate by including statistics that compare crimes reported to the police with those experiences reported by the women surveyed. According to an analysis by LiveMint, around 99 percent of sexual violence cases go unreported, including rape.
Professor and Director of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at George Washington University Kavita Daiya told The Globe Post inefficiencies in the criminal justice system have contributed to India’s rape epidemic. “This lack of accountability, and this breakdown in the criminal justice system in which evidence gets ‘lost,’ state actors can get bribed to let rapists off the hook, and the lengthy process which stretches out over several years due to the backlog of cases, in my view, are the biggest pre-conditions that make a woman more vulnerable to rape in India.”
Another large part of the problem is India’s archaic Penal Code that states, “Sexual acts by a man with his own wife […] is not rape.” Marital rape is downgraded in the courts to sexual harassment and spousal cruelty, which carry lesser penalties. The 2018 NFHS found that over 80 percent of women who were victims of sexual violence were abused by their spouses. Maneka Gandhi, India’s Women and Child Welfare Minister, wrote to the Indian Parliament in 2016 that “marital rape is not applicable in the Indian context,” arguing India as an exception due to the “level of education/illiteracy, poverty, myriad social customs and values, religious beliefs, mind-set of the society to treat the marriage as a sacrament.”
The issue of criminalizing marital rape has become incredibly divisive among the Indian populace. A 2016 Times of India twitter poll found that 52 percent of respondents agreed with Gandhi.
“The struggle over whether marital rape should be criminalized points to the tension between entrenched sexist attitudes towards women and women’s rights on the one hand, and the growing demand-on the part of activists as well as legal figures like some judges-for women’s equal rights to be protected regardless of marital status,” said Professor Daiya.
Top U.N. officials have repeatedly urged the Indian government to protect all women from marital rape. At the 2017 United Nations review in Geneva, over 30 countries brought up concerns over violence against women in India, with 10 countries asking the Indian government to outlaw marital rape.
“In general, the refusal to criminalize marital rape is reflective of the patriarchal mindset prevalent in India and the usual reluctance by India’s lawmakers and courts to take India’s own international treaty obligations – in this case towards the protection of girl children – seriously,” Professor Balakrishnan Rajagopal, Founding Director of the Program on Human Rights and Justice at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told The Globe Post.
The Supreme Court ruled in October 2017 that sexual intercourse with a wife would only be considered rape if she is under 18-years-old. This ruling contradicts pre-existing legislation that prohibits marriage for girls under 18-years of age, although India is notorious for having some of the highest numbers of child brides in the world.
The Indian Courts are often favorable towards men in most domestic cases. In August 2017, an Indian court ruled that men required protection from women making “unsubstantiated domestic harassment” claims, Public Radio International reported. Domestic cases are often regarded as private family matters in India. At least 57 percent of Parole Officers believed domestic violence was a family affair, according to a survey conducted in 2012 by the Lawyers Collective, a public interest law firm in New Delhi.
It appears that India’s rape epidemic is perpetuated by the sexist attitudes instilled in governmental policies, politicians, and authorities. “The basic issue here is power relations in which women who are raped are voiceless and often fear social opprobrium and victimization,” said Professor Rajagopal.