Mili Mitra is a Post Opinions intern.
One of my earliest memories of walking in the streets of India involves being groped by a stranger as I went out to dinner with my family. I still viscerally remember that moment — and the moment right after, when I turned to the man who groped me and apologized, thinking it was my fault for, apparently, falling into his hands. At the time, I couldn’t believe anyone actually wanted to touch me there.
I was just six years old.
Incidents like this are commonplace for Indian women. In fact, every single one I know has their own story to relate — some more serious than others. So when I first heard of a newly-released Thomson Reuters Foundation report that ranked India as the most dangerous country in the world for women, I wasn’t surprised. You only have to spend a day in India to realize that, if you are a woman in a public setting, you had better be armed with either a large handbag or pepper spray.
But in India, the response to the report was more impassioned. It generated outrage among politicians, academics and civil society members — groups that generally struggle to find common ground. How, they asked, could India be ranked higher than countries such as Syria or the Democratic Republic of Congo, where women are caught in the middle of violent conflict, and where sexual violence is routinely used as a tool of war? And why was it listed higher than Saudi Arabia, where leading female activists are still languishing in prison for championing women’s right to drive?
For its part, India’s Ministry of Women and Child Development rejected the report, criticizing its methodology and claiming that it was a clear effort “to malign the nation.” Politicians from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) likewise accused Thomson Reuters of having an “agenda,” though they did not specify what that means. But this knee-jerk defensiveness completely misses the point.
Yes, the report is methodologically flawed. It was based on an opinion poll of 548 “experts” — who have not yet been identified — and relies on perception rather than fact. We do not know what data and criteria were used to compare countries, or even where the surveyed experts were from. These factors could have vast implications for how countries were ultimately ranked.
And yes, in terms of actual numbers, India still has a lower reported rate of rape per 100,000 people than most other countries, including the United States. This is thought to be likely because of extreme levels of under-reporting, though there is some evidence that reporting rates are on the rise. Statistics are an imperfect way to compare countries but, at first glance, singling out India for censure seems misleading.
Still, even with its flaws, the report highlights something important: Despite lawmakers’ attempts to convince us that India is safer for women now than it was before an infamous 2012 gang rape and murder in Delhi, conditions remain largely the same. Women still face harassment and abuse on a daily basis — just ask the scores of women who were molested en masse on the streets of Bangalore last year. For all of Modi’s rhetoric about “treating women like goddesses,” women are still treated as anything but.
The Thomson Reuters report casts a spotlight on a question that is not asked often enough: How much has the Modi government — or any Indian government, for that matter — actually done to tackle violence against women? The BJP can point to its large-scale awareness program for girls’ empowerment, Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao (Save the Girl, Educate the Girl). Yet the party has taken few concrete steps to address the culture of impunity and stigma that perpetuates and normalizes sexual harassment. Police officers still receive limited training and oversight, reportedly failing to register sexual-assault complaints, and even pressuring survivors and their families to “settle” with perpetrators. The country’s 16 DNA forensics labs still take years to process samples from sexual-assault cases and have a collective backlog of over 12,000 samples. Fourteen states still lack “fast-track courts,” which handle crimes against women and children. Compensation for survivors is still poorly coordinated and rare. Marital rape is still not classified as a crime. A reported 106 women are still raped every day — and approximately three-quarters of the perpetrators are never convicted. The BJP inherited all of these problems, but it has not made a coordinated or concerted effort to tackle them.
Of course, the Indian National Congress — the country’s opposition party — did not do any better while it was in power. It is telling that the politicians who have been most outspoken against this most recent report are the ones who hailed it as a wake-up call while in opposition in 2011. The next report, whenever it comes out, will likely elicit the same polarized response. Because, at the end of the day, both parties are complicit. Indian lawmakers from both sides of the aisle only remember women’s rights when it scores them political points. So, if this report reminds even one or two lawmakers that they have a responsibility to address violence against some of the most vulnerable members of their electorate, it will be worth the outcry.
In the meantime, Indian politicians can continue to take solace in the fact that India has lower rates of violence against women than Syria or Afghanistan. But someone should remind them that people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.