India’s rape problem is already taking an economic toll

January 4, 2013

Delhi women chant slogans as they brace against police water canons during a protest against government handling of the recent gang rape of a New Delhi woman on a bus. (Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

The most obvious economic implication of India's problem with violence against women – recently symbolized by the shocking assault and gang rape of a New Delhi woman on a moving bus – is that it helps keep India's 600 million women marginalized. The World Economic Forum ranks India 123rd in the world by women's economic participation and 121st by educational attainment.

Whatever social attitudes help make violence against women so prevalent in India probably also inform the challenges Indian women face in accessing education and work. There are a number of reasons that India, though the world's second-most populous nation, is also one of its poorest per capita. But attitudes toward women – only 35 percent of whom work, meaning hundreds of millions of potential workers stay at home – are almost certainly part of the problem. This may be why China's first communist leaders, who took over when their then-poor nation had similar attitudes toward women, campaigned aggressively against such practices as female foot-binding, arguing that underlying attitudes toward women held back the country's economy.

Still, even with the problem this stark, you don't expect to see violence against women translate into immediate and quantifiable national economic damage. But, in a sign of just how serious India's problem really is, that may already be happening. A study across several cities found that a staggering 82 percent of Indian women say that they are reducing their working hours, leaving the office early because they don't want to be traveling after dark, when the risk of assault could be higher. Some quit outright, afraid that commuting has become too dangerous.

The study, by an Indian chamber of commerce office called Assocham, added that past, high-profile instances of sexual violence have led to similar reductions in female workplace participation. The Wall Street Journal wrote up the survey's findings, which include the revelation that many women have already quit:

Over the last fortnight, one in three women working in the IT sector in Delhi either reduced working hours after sunset or quit their jobs, says Assocham. The study estimates that, in the aftermath of the attack, the productivity of women employed in the IT sector in the Delhi area has dropped by as much as 40%. There are about 2,200 IT and outsourcing companies in the Delhi area, employing over 250,000 women.  

That's a direct and immediate economic impact of this one sexual assault, which is itself part of a larger, unresolved problem in India – one with clear implications for all Indians. 

The Post's Rama Lakshmi has been producing some stellar – and often quite moving – reports on India's national turmoil over the rape and its aftermath. She documents survivors' struggles just to get police to investigate, which suggest how deep the problem really goes:

Since the incident, Indians have heatedly discussed issues concerning the treatment of women, including violence, police attitudes, safety on public transportation, clothing and even Bollywood’s gender stereotypes.

Meanwhile, another rape case has drawn widespread public attention. On Wednesday, a teenager who was raped committed suicide in the northern state of Punjab after police reportedly asked her demeaning questions when she reported the attack.

“The police refused to file a complaint. Instead, they asked my sister such vulgar details, it was as if she was being raped all over again,” the victim’s sister, Charanjit Kaur, said in a telephone interview from her village. “There was no lady police officer, they were all men. My sister cried in front of them and kept asking, ‘Would you still ask such questions if I were your daughter?’ ”

Activists say that such cases illustrate why sexual violence in India largely goes unreported. In recent years, New Delhi has earned the title of being the “rape capital” of the nation. This year, more than 560 cases have been reported. But activists say that only a small fraction of sex crimes are reported in India.

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