Thousands of Indians have taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest the rape of a young woman on a moving bus in New Delhi. But in rural areas just a few hours’ drive from India’s capital, where police and activists say rapes are common and increasing, such incidents draw scarcely any attention, let alone outrage.
(Read: In India, a history of high-profile rapes)
In India’s modernizing but still deeply traditional society, social and women’s rights activists say rapes occur with virtual impunity, and women who betray flickers of independent thought and challenge the male-dominated status quo are especially vulnerable. The problem is particularly acute in impoverished rural India, where women’s families face social pressure not to report rapes, police are apathetic about such crimes, and deep caste inequalities provide cover to men who sexually abuse women of lower standing.
“Women have no respect in the home here; they are basically treated as doormats,” said Suneeta Tyagi, an activist in the Haryana town of Gohana. “Now, there is a growing tribe of young men who have no jobs or education. Nobody wants to marry their daughters off to them. Their frustration results in such heinous crimes.”
The regularity of rapes and the resentment of women who question traditional roles are just two examples of this country’s vast gender inequality and wobbly rule of law — among the factors economists say are keeping India from its goal of being a global power.
According to government statistics, the number of rapes reported nationwide rose 50 percent between 2001 and 2011, when police registered 23,582 cases. Over the same period in Haryana, a state of 25 million people, the figure rose nearly 85 percent, to 733. Police and activists say part of the increase might be attributable to more reporting, but they also insist that incidents are rising.
In October, a senior Haryana police officer interviewed by an Indian magazine blamed the increase on girls and women who are “easily influenced” and wear Western clothes. Police interviewed after the New Delhi case were more circumspect, vaguely blaming socioeconomic factors.
Some right-wing Hindu nationalists have tried to blame rapes on the influx of Western values or portray them as an urban phenomenon. But in rural India, the status of women is so low — and a family’s honor their exclusive burden — that such crimes often go unrecorded. When police do take up rape cases, rural communities tend to rally around the accused and ostracize the accusers.
“This is an unequal society. Boys can do what they want,” said Jagmati Sangwan of the All India Democratic Women’s Association. “Honor is for girls only, and they pay such a high price for that.”