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Inside Story

Are women safe in India?

We ask if the country's existing laws and the attitude of law enforcers are serving to compound or prevent sexual abuse.
Last Modified: 24 Dec 2012 14:32

The gang-rape of a medical student on a moving bus last week in New Delhi has triggered mass protests on the streets of India, with calls for change and justice for a young woman.

She was raped for about an hour and thrown out of the bus. She is recovering in the intensive care unit after undergoing multiple surgeries. Her injuries were so bad that she was only recently able to give a statement to the Indian authorities.

The 23-year-old told police six men took turns sexually assaulting her. The suspects allegedly used a metal rod to assault the victim and her friend.

"The rape laws are crying out for change because according to the present laws, insertion of an object in a woman's body is not considered rape, marital rape is not considered rape, there are no specific provisions relating to custodial rape. So there are huge problems with the way in which sexual harassment is described as something silly as outraging the modesty."

- Kavita Krishnan, the secretary of the All-India Progressive Women's Association

Angry Indians are hitting the streets, defying a ban on mass demonstrations. Police have been using tear gas and water cannon against the protesters.

So, just how widespread a problem is sexual abuse against women in India?

There are reports that suggest that in India, a woman is raped every 20 minutes.

More than 24,000 rape cases in the country were reported last year alone, of which 570 were reported in the Indian capital, where already this year 635 rape cases have been registered.

The legal news service Trust Law says India is the worst country in the G20 to be a woman. It says women and girls continue to be sold, married off at a young age, exploited and abused as domestic slaves.

The number of crimes recorded against women, including kidnapping, abduction, and human trafficking exceeds 2.5 million.

Many activists say Indians are protesting against what they say is a culture of impunity.

There are 40,000 pending rape cases in the country and survivors have to wait years for their cases to be heard – even then the conviction rate is just 34.6 percent – according to the National Crimes Record Bureau.

"Section 376 [Indian Penal Code] takes care of punishing each and everybody [for sexual abuse] … as far as preventing such incidents are concerned our basic problem [in] policing is they are punitive and not preventive in nature .… Similarly political will is lacking because we keep crying about the judicial process as being very low but the question is, it is the government's duty to provide proper infrastructure."

- Rajeev Aswathi, a Delhi high court lawyer

The Indian Penal Code lists punishments of up to life behind bars, but those convicted are often let off after serving a short sentence.

Undercover reporters in India gathered evidence of how the police in the Delhi region view rape survivors. The investigation published by the Indian weekly Tehelka exposed how the system often blames the survivors.

Senior police officers were caught on hidden camera talking about survivors, saying: "She asked for it”; "It's all about money"; "They have made it a business"; "It's consensual most of the time".

Seventeen officers in over a dozen police stations were caught on spy cameras blaming everything from revealing clothes to having boyfriends or going to pubs as the main reasons for rape.

The investigators came to the conclusion that the officers encountered do not fulfil the basic standard of policing, which requires investigating a case without any cultural, class or gender bias.

In this episode, Inside Story discusses if women are safe in India.

Joining the discussion, with presenter Hazem Sika, are guests: Kavita Krishnan, the secretary of the All-India Progressive Women's Association; Rajeev Aswathi, a New Delhi high court lawyer who has previously represented rape survivors; and Lawrence Saez, a professor of political economy at the School of Oriental and African Studies, and the author of New Dimensions of Politics in India: The United Progressive Alliance in Power.

"This case has alerted people to the problem primarily because the victim was a middle-class student and the alleged rapists are people who migrated to the city so there's an element of social class struggle. But rape is sadly quite common in the villages, sometimes by the police and by people who are wealthy against people who are very poor, and they escape with impunity."

Lawrence Saez, a professor of political economy


Rape capitals of the world in 2010:

  • South Africa – it has one of the highest rates, with 277,000 reported cases. The same year a survey by the Medical Research Council found that one in four men admitted to raping someone
  • United States – more than 84,000 rape cases were reported. Criminals face life behind bars, and in some states, castration is an option
  • India – reported a little more than 22,000 cases
  • United Kingdom – 16,000 cases were reported. A suspect found guilty, faces a maximum conviction of life in prison
  • Mexico – nearly 15,000 cases were reported. In some parts of the country, penalties may consist of a few hours in jail, or minor fines
  • Germany – counts the highest number of reported rape cases in Europe, just under 8,000
  • Russia – almost 5,000 cases were reported, and the crime holds a punishment of 4 -10 years in jail

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