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What Headlines And Protests Get Wrong About Rape In India

On Nov. 27, a veterinarian in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad called her family to say she'd gotten a flat tire on the side of the road. A truck driver was helping her, and she'd be home soon, she told her sister.

A few days later, police found her charred remains in a wooded area. Authorities believe four men deflated her tire, posed as good Samaritans to trick her, then gang-raped and murdered her. Police said they have DNA evidence connecting them to the crime.

The story dominated the news cycle and sparked nationwide protests. For many citizens, the outrage felt like déjà vu. Seven years ago, a gang rape on a moving bus in New Delhi sparked massive demonstrations and panic over sexual violence in the country.

The attention paid to such high-profile cases involving urban, educated women attacked by strangers overlooks a crucial point about rape in India: Many victims are poor, marginalized women from lower castes, often living in rural areas, who know their rapists, according to Kalpana Sharma. She is the author of The Silence and The Storm: Narratives of Violence against Women in India and has been a journalist for nearly five decades, specializing in gender issues.

Sharma says there is great outrage at the violence that takes place in public spaces in urban areas because they are familiar to many people.

Days after the rape and murder in Hyderabad, police in the city issued safety tips for women. They advised women to "wait in crowded areas" and "talk loud when confronted" among other things. Social media users criticized the police for putting the onus on women to protect themselves against potential rapists.

"The focus on one or two incidents in bigger cities makes people believe that the major reason for violence against women is that women are out in the public space and are therefore unsafe and need to be protected from certain kinds of men," says Sharma.

Sharma and others are also concerned about the way perpetrators are punished after being found guilty.

Swati Maliwal is the chairperson of the Delhi Commission for Women. She spoke to NPR from a protest camp in New Delhi in early December. She was then on her fourth day of a hunger strike to demand action against sexual violence in the aftermath of the Hyderabad case. (Her strike lasted nearly 2 weeks.)

She is demanding the government pass laws stipulating tougher punishment for rapists, including that they be hanged within 6 months of their conviction.

Maliwal is frustrated that more than seven years after the 2012 Delhi rape, the four convicts who were sentenced for rape and murder are still alive. They're still on death row.

When a rape makes news headlines in India, it's almost always followed by urgent demands for retributive justice. Days after the Hyderabad murder, a politician in India's upper house of parliament said the accused should be lynched in public. (The four suspects were later killed by police who claim they acted in self-defense. A judicial inquiry is underway.)

Only about a third of rape cases reported to the police result in a conviction. At the end of 2017, the most recent year for which data is available, Indian courts had a backlog of more than 100,000 rape cases.

"There should be pressure on the government but not pressure to bypass laws or to get stricter punishment but to actually get the criminal justice system to work," Sharma says.

Sharma says the criminal justice system must work not just for one or two high-profile cases but also for the thousands of cases of poor women who can't even get their complaints registered with police.

And then there are the women who are raped and do not report it to the police. According to India's National Family Health Survey, 80% of women who have experienced sexual violence never tell anyone about it.

Nonprofit groups are working to encourage women who've faced domestic violence, including marital rape, to come forward. Social workers affiliated with Mumbai-based nonprofit SNEHA (Society for Nutrition, Education and Health Action) go door-to-door in Dharavi, one of Mumbai's largest slums, handing out leaflets with information on how to contact SNEHA for help, which includes counseling and access to legal and medical services.

Nayreen Daruwalla is a social worker and director of SNEHA's prevention of violence against women and children program. She says many in this neighborhood, she says, were child brides. In such cases, the idea of consent and the definition of rape itself gets blurred.

"There is no question of consent. 'She is my wife! She is my property. So I have the right to just use her.' This is the thinking," Daruwalla says.

Until that thinking changes, sexual violence will persist across India, she says.

The government is trying to address this mindset.

For example, all Indian colleges must now offer training to prevent sexual harassment. The program is designed to reach young people in many income levels, including students from poor socioeconomic backgrounds.

Altamash Khan is one of the instructors. He's a gender studies expert who works with Mumbai-based nonprofit Men Against Violence and Abuse.

"It's a spectrum of violence," Khan says. "You begin with catcalling. You see domestic violence. You see films where the woman eventually falls in love [with her harasser]."

Patriarchal values also cause men to act with impunity because they believe they have a certain privilege, he adds.

Khan believes that if we can chip away at age-old patriarchal values, it could reduce sexual violence.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.