India has a serious problem with rape.
The most harrowing example of rape/homicide in recent memory has to be the case of Jyoti Singh, a physiotherapy student who was brutally raped and murdered on a bus in 2012. The horrific nature of her attack — and the fact that she lived in agony for days after being gang raped, partially eviscerated with a metal rod, then thrown by the side of the road and left for dead — drew international attention to the growing problem of violence against women in India. Worldwide protests were held, demanding justice for the victim and government intervention to protect Indian women. At that time, the director of the Center for Social Research Ranjana Kumari remarked to NPR that there were over 40,000 rape cases pending trial in India, and the horrific attack and murder of Jyoti Singh was merely the tip of the iceberg.
Why has rape become a national epidemic in India? The answer may be something we take for granted in this country: toilets. NPR reports that few homes have safe places for women and children to urinate and defecate, forcing them to travel to isolated fields to relieve their bodily functions when the urge strikes. If a young woman is not lucky enough to have a man stand guard over her while she attends to her bodily functions, she may find herself vulnerable to a violent attack, as was the case in yet another high-profile rape/homicide which drew national attention back to India's rape problem.
In late May of 2014, a pair of teenage cousins (aged 14 and 15) disappeared one night and were discovered hanging from a mango tree. According to Julie McCarthy of NPR, the girls “had gone to a field to relieve themselves and never returned.” Charges were filed against seven men for gang-raping and executing the girls. Though the case was later thrown out after the head of the Central Bureau of Investigation concluded that the girls had committed suicide, law enforcement made numerous missteps investigating the case which left many skeptical of this ruling. Furthermore, two of the seven men initially charged in the double homicide were members of the local police force, who — in addition to ignoring the families' pleas for help finding their missing daughters — may have been involved in the attack.
Barkha Shukla, chairwoman of the Delhi Commission for Women was among many to dispute the findings of the CBI: “It must be taken seriously, decisions should not be made in haste. The CBI should revisit its repost and culprits must be punished.”
Systemic sexism and class issues may also be to blame for India’s rape problem. The two teens in the 2014 case apparently belonged to the lowest caste in India, commonly called “untouchables,” which was reportedly a factor in the law enforcement's dismissal of the case and refusal to investigate thoroughly. Manohar Lal Sharma, one of the defense attorneys in Jyoti Singh’s case, argued that the victim deserved to get raped because she was a woman who had left her house: “Until today I have not seen a single incident or example of rape with a respected lady. Even an underworld don would not like to touch a girl with respect.” Leslee Udwin's emotional documentary India’s Daughter (available for streaming on Netflix) follows the crime and the case in graphic detail. Udwin's film interviews defense attorneys and even the rapists themselves, and the sexism, victim-blaming and misogyny they exhibit during the course of those interviews is both heartbreaking and horrifying.
Classist and sexist attitudes towards women can prevent many rape victims from coming forward. Earlier this year, we reported on the case of a teenaged nursing student whose father systematically raped her for four years, while her mother vehemently refused to believe her daughter’s outcries. According to reports in the Hindustan Times, the girl finally lured her father to a friend’s house and allowed herself to be raped by him while the friend captured the encounter on video with her cell phone. It was only after the victim showed the footage to her mother that she was finally taken seriously. Armed with video as proof, the girl brought her case to the police, and her father was arrested. Without the film of her assault, would anyone have believed her? Would her father have been arrested? Or would she still be awaiting justice?
Finally, the Indian government is trying to find a solution to the national problem of violence against women: this week, the Communications and Information Technology Minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad, announced a plan to equip all cell phones across the nation to make emergency phone calls at the push of a single button.
By 2017, the new feature is expected to roll out in all phones, and by 2018, use of GPS tracking in phones aims to make it easier to locate women in distress. There are existing products on the market that should theoretically fill this niche — notably, Delhi-based Himmat for Android phones, wearable “smart” jewelry, and the panic button feature in Uber and Ola’s rideshare apps.
While is is heartening to hear that women’s safety is becoming a primary concern to the Indian government, this response may not be the solution that women have been waiting for. Many are skeptical of the police’s ability to respond to the increased demand for their services that will doubtless result from this new plan. One has to question whether other measures — improving infrastructure to allow more women and children access to safe indoor toilet facilities, increasing the size of trained police force to respond to crimes, better regulations of bus services, weeding out corrupt public officials from the police force — may do more to prevent rape than the new "panic button" cell phone feature, which merely helps respond to rape.
The emergency button means that the responsibility for reporting and reacting to rape is once again, literally in the hands of the victim. Will this mean that women are now responsible for carrying their cell phones at all times, even (as is the case with the teen cousins in 2014) when going to the fields at night to urinate? What will this mean if, say, a woman leaves her house without her cell phone and gets attacked — will she be considered at fault for not being prepared? Why is it always about what the victims do or don't do, never about the rapists? It's as though this new technology resigns itself to the same sad fact that many women in India accept as reality: rape is inevitable. Just be prepared for it.
Ultimately, the technology that makes it easier for women to report rape and violence does not prevent it, nor does it ensure that the perpetrators will be brought to justice after the fact. The emergency call feature is a step forward, but first, cultural and social institutions that support and abet rape and violence against women must be dismantled. Multifaceted and complicated solutions must be sought to deal with the problem that, when you think about it, boils down to an infuriatingly simple solution:
JUST. DON'T. RAPE.
featured image of silent protest following Jyoti Singh's 2012 gang rape and murder, via Wikimedia Commons
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Meghan Sara is a tour guide for Ghosts, Murders and Mayhem Walking Tours. She is open-minded about everything, but intolerant to gluten. She blogs at meghansara.com, is a regular contributor to Femnasty, and tweets her feelings @MeghanSaraK.