India’s rape problem is also a police problem

January 7, 2013

Indian demonstrators push against a police barricade during a protest calling for better safety for women. (SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP/Getty Images)

Public outrage over the recent shocking assault and gang rape of a 23-year-old Delhi woman developed into outrage over India's much larger sexual violence problem, which is now turning to outrage against the police. It's not hard to see why: Three-fourths of the perpetrators of India's 24,206 rapes in 2011 are still at large, and that's not even including the rapes that go unreported, which are thought to be the majority of cases. The women and girls who do report being raped can sometimes face antipathy or outright hostility from police.

Indian law enforcement officials do not have a particularly strong reputation for assisting rape victims, or even for taking them seriously. When a mob of men beat and raped the young Delhi woman on a bus, later throwing her and her male friend naked into the street, police argued for 20 minutes about jurisdiction once they arrived before someone even covered the victims with a blanket, according to the friend. The friend, who was also beaten, said that police then declined to call an ambulance or even help the badly wounded young woman into her friend's car. It was, he said, two hours before they made it to the hospital. A police spokesman disputed his account, saying officers had gotten her to a hospital in minutes. Later, the Delhi police chief, Neeraj Kumar, proposed a solution: “Women should not go out late at night.”

A few days after the Delhi incident, another young Indian woman, a teenager, was raped. According to her family, the police who arrived to help asked demeaning questions, worsening what would already be a difficult and shameful experience for many Indian women.

“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 told The Washington Post's Rama Lakshmi. “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?’" It took two weeks for the police to register her complaint, and the three men she'd accused remained free until after the young victim, a full 44 days after her rape, committed suicide.

In yet another recent case, police reportedly pressured a 17-year-old victim to marry one of her rapists -- or at least to reach an informal financial settlement with the men. One police officer pushed her to withdraw the case, according to a family member. She, too, committed suicide. Last spring, undercover journalists with the Indian magazine Tehelka recorded a series of conversations with police officers, one of whom told them, "In reality, the ones who complain are only those who have turned rape into a business."

Is it any wonder that activists seem to think most rapes in India go unreported? Or that most of the rapes that are reported don't yield an arrest? Or, for that matter, that India has such a severe problem with sexual violence? As Lakshmi and Olga Khazan explained in a recent post, part of the problem is that only a tiny fraction of police officers are women, meaning that rape survivors must discuss their ordeal with men -- a daunting prospect in any society, much less one as gender-segregated as India. Still, as they note, police gender breakdowns, like the police themselves, are just part of the problem, in many ways a product of larger social attitudes toward gender and sexuality.

Leading Indian politicians have suggested, even in the face of rising public outrage, that the victims might be to blame, arguing as one did that women should not "roam in streets at midnight." A legislator whose father also happens to be India's president called the anti-rape demonstrators "highly dented and painted” women who go “from discos to demonstrations.” Last February, a female legislator, repeating the belief that victims of rape are actually prostitutes, suggested that a recent high-profile rape had not been rape at all but merely "a misunderstanding between two parties involved in professional dealings. Between the lady and her client."

However deep and broad these attitudes might go in Indian society, it's to some extent the police who ensure they will be acted upon -- by shaming victims, declining to investigate or otherwise perpetuating a system in which the woman or girl is presumed to somehow carry the real blame for what happened to her. Addressing problems with law enforcement would almost certainly not fix India's sexual assault problem on its own, but it could go a long way.

Activists talk about two different ways to improve how police in India deal with sexual assault. The first, and probably most important, calls for the daunting and probably generations-long work of changing Indian social attitudes toward sexuality and gender, which have been codified at least since Victorian-era British colonial rule. In the meantime, activists tend to focus on reforming some of the more egregious practices that help institutionalize these old ways of thinking.

Here, for example, is Human Rights Watch on the "two-finger test," whereby a doctor's subjective evaluation of a victim's reproductive organs can trump all other forms of evidence:

India does not have a uniform protocol for medical treatment and examination of survivors of sexual assault, making responses ad hoc and unpredictable, and in the worst cases, degrading and counter-productive. This is reflected in the continued use of the so-called “finger test,” which Human Rights Watch documented in a 2010 report. While conducting medical examinations, many doctors record unscientific and degrading findings, which involve noting the “laxity” of the vagina or hymen, apparently to determine whether the victims are “virgins” or “habituated to sexual intercourse.” Often doctors, police, and judges look for evidence of “struggle” or “injuries,” especially hymenal injuries, in the medical examination report, discrediting those who do not report such injuries.

Ending this practice, an extension of the belief that women and girls who might be having sex are probably themselves to blame for getting raped, is not going to end the thinking behind it. But it would help, activists say, to at least edge that thinking out of mainstream police procedures, maybe making it easier to develop institutions that could better serve India's 600 million women and girls. 

India's protesters are calling, often literally, for the blood of the Delhi rapists. India's politicians are looking for a way out of their impasse, stuck between outraged women demanding reform and a billion-person society probably not able to change very quickly. Dealing with the police problem could be a logical place to start. 

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Olga Khazan · January 6, 2013