ByÂ Anesa Kratovac:
As a foreigner in India, both before my arrival and after spending over a month in the country, I have been baffled by the numerous instances of rape reported in the news. Another friend from Kenya expressed a similar view recently, and told me that one of the biggest things she was worrying about when she came to India was the incidence of rape in the country, and consequently, her own safety. How grave is the situation if rape is what India is becoming synonymous with in the eyes of the outsiders. Although rape does happen in various parts of the world for a number of reasons, especially as a weapon of war, the dominant social discourse of rape in India seemed like an outlier in the global context. The questions that run through one’s mind are predictable: Is the patriarchal society to blame? Is it poverty? Is it culture? But even if the answers to all of these questions were “yes”, that cannot explain why there is such prevalence in India and not in other patriarchal cultures where women’s agency has a long way to go in terms of gender equality.
There are more countries in the world than not, where women are relegated to a secondary status. But out of all these “developing counties,” the media’s fixation on India was mind-boggling. It is a country where women are entering the modern work-force in great numbers and where there are many women leaders in all sectors of public and civil life. As a juxtaposition to this reality, there is another one where abhorrent poverty and social structure consign women to commodities to be traded and used.
India’s contradictions are nothing new. Recently, Amartya Sen co-wrote a book with Jean Dreze about the gaps between India’s progress and its simultaneous inability to deal with fundamental socioeconomic, health and ecological issues. By ignoring the latter, he states, India cannot truly progress. Simultaneously, he calls for the media’s attention to social issues and criticizes its focus on the areas of life where progress has been made. However, as far as incidence of rape, it is one area that the media does report on frequently, which has sparked a lively social dialogue of women’s issues in the country. But, still without much clarity of the underlying causes behind India being the poster country for rape incidences, I decided to do some research.And here are the surprising conclusions.
Rape is reported to be the 4th serious crime committed against women in India, where a woman is raped every 20 minutes. However, India is far from the outlier that I envisioned through my everyday encounters with the social discourse. In fact, although I was aware of the massive rape culture in American high schools, colleges and big cities in particular, I underestimated how the country where I am from fares in the prevalence of reported rapes per capita. In fact, both the United States of America and the “gender-equal” Sweden report, on average, yearly rape incidences in greater number than India. Although it is estimated that only 10% of cases are reported in India, when one accounts for the same 10% controls for the reports in the US and Sweden and adjusts the population numbers, the incidence in India is lower.
Now, that is something to consider and process- one of the wealthiest and most developed countries in the world and one of the most progressive countries in the world in terms of gender equality and social progress are by far worse perpetrators when it comes to rape than many other countries still struggling with widespread poverty, development issues and political turbulence.
So, what can be concluded from this? For one, rape is a ubiquitous problem that affects all societies alike, despite their respective economic standing and social values. Secondly, one can gather that incidence of rape is reported heavily in India and not as profoundly in other countries, creating an image of the mentioned countries as either safe and unsafe for women, which is far from the statistical truth. In fact, media distorts our views of crime and renders a specific discourse of values, social patterns and impressions upon our societies that we readily absorb just by the feat of existing. Indeed, the power of the media is vast and it affects how we view, feel and interpret messages and images around us. Precisely, this state of affairs should encourage us to have a critical outlook on what we hear and see and to do our own research by asking “why”.
Most importantly, this discussion highlights the vast progress we need to make in terms of creating gender equality in countries all over the world- not only “developing” countries, but countries that most of the world reveres and desires to emulate. This calls for each one of us to help empower and educate boys, girls, men and women equally to be active contributors to our societies and to respect and collaborate with one another.
This is exactly why I came to India. Currently, I am working with the Blue Ribbon Movement, a social enterprise geared towards leadership-building in youth. One of our programs, Avanti Young Women Leadership Program, is moving in the right direction to empower young women to take on social issues that affect their future livelihoods. What the Blue Ribbon Movement should likewise undertake in the near future in order to have an even far-reaching effect is to establish a leadership program for boys; the program would reach them young and while they are still forming attitudes about gender and about themselves as young men in their society. With an active involvement of today’s youth, we need to advocate for gender equality and condemnation of rape as unacceptable. Indeed, we all have very far to go, but we are certainly moving in the right direction.