Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Root Causes of Rise In Rape Cases ARE Also Non Reporting And Non Action

Imposing restrictions on women like dress code ensures more violence against them

Economic Times

By: Neeraj Kaushal, Associate Professor, Columbia University 

A dress code for women will not create a safer society: not for women, not even for men, and definitely not for children. Restricting women's freedom and mobility will not reduce crime against them. It will marginalise women further, tilt the balance of power further in favour of men and weaken the society. 

Banwari Lal Singhal, a BJP MLA from Rajasthan, has asked the state's chief secretary to impose a ban on skirts in school uniform and instead replace skirts with trousers or salwar kameez. Mr Singhal explained that his intention was to keep school girls away from "men's lustful eyes". In his words, "It is not a Talibanitype of thinking or restriction on girls' freedom or rights but aconcern for their safety." 

Mr Singhal's concern sounds sincere, but his solution to ban skirts in school uniform is nothing but, to repeat his words, "a Talibani-type of thinking". However nicely these sentiments are worded, these are regressive attempts to blame women for the sexual assaults against them and to demand that women conform to a lifestyle that makes them safe in a male-dominated society. Just when the conversation should be about empowering women, the legislator from Alwar is basically asking women to hide for their survival. Such retrogressive steps have never worked, and will not work in future. 

In June 2012, a poll by Trust-Law, a legal news service of Thomson Reuters Foundation, ranked India the fourth-mostdangerous country for women. The three countries ranked above India were Afghanistan, Congo and Pakistan. If skirts in school uniforms were the cause of sexual assault and violence against women, these countries should be the safest places for women. But they are not. While sexual assault and violence against women is universal, countries and cities where women are free to wear skirts or the clothing of their choice are no more dangerous than societies that impose a dress code on them. Indeed, all evidence suggests that women are less safe in societies that impose restrictions on women, including restrictions on what they should wear and how they should appear and behave in public. 

We do, indeed, have a dress code for women in many communities across the country. But these dress codes have not made women any safer. Married women in the north and north-western states of the country are expected to cover their faces so that the male members of their husband's family do not see their faces. This has not made it safer for women; on the contrary, such practices are attempts to make women more vulnerable and submissive. In Punjab, for instance, where married women often cover their faces in public, unreported atrocities against women are many times the reported number of cases. 

In 1995, a survey conducted by the Institute of Development and Communication (IDC) in Punjab found that for every case of reported rape, there were 68 unreported instances. While comparable statistics are not available, the widely-cited number for the rest of the country is 1:10. The same survey found that for every reported case of molestation in Punjab, there were 374 unreported instances. 

In most cases, women are not subjected to violence from random strangers, but their own family members, relatives, neighbours or acquaintances. In Punjab, the IDC survey found that every third household reported wife-beating, every fourth household experienced a dowry demand, every 55th household acknowledged sexual exploitation and every 66th household acknowledged a rape incident. As many as 27 dowry deaths remained unreported against one reported case; as many as 299 dowry harassment cases remained unreported against one reported case. 

National data on reported instances of sexual assault against women leads to a similar conclusion that in a majority of cases, the perpetrators are not strangers. Consider this: in 2011, nationwide, there were 24,206 reported cases of rape. In 90% cases, the perpetrators were known to the victim. In close to 40% of the cases, the perpetrator was a parent, a relative or a neighbour. 

Worldwide, sexual assaults against women are grossly underreported. In other countries, as in India, a vast majority of the perpetrators (as many as 70% in the US) are husbands, boyfriends, relatives or acquaintances. We are at a stage in our society where women find it more painful to report sexual assault against them and deal with the society's response. More sympathetic environment towards rape victims would encourage the victims to report, thus increasing the probability that the rapists would get the punishment they deserve. 

Given the lack of support from the police and the legal system, I suspect that underreporting is much higher in India than in many western countries. Under-reporting encourages the perpetrators and makes them believe that they are invincible. Unfortunately, the few incidents that have been reported in recent years in India, it is often the case that the police has been quite reluctant to register the cases. They embarrass the victim and look for physical evidence of violence. According to the World Health Organization, physical evidence of violence is missing in two-thirds of the cases. The government should take action against police officers who refuse to register FIRs of sexual assault. Political leaders who hesitate in taking action against the police should be made to suffer the consequences of their inaction.

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