In summer 2012, Republican congressman and U.S. Senate candidate Todd Akin of Missouri offered an assessment of rape that would come to define him. He was asked whether he thought abortion was justified in cases of rape. “It seems to be, first of all, from what I understand from doctors, it’s really rare,” he replied. “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try and shut the whole thing down.”
Akin had a chance to win that Senate race but got trounced.
Thousands of miles away in India, some politicians haven’t learned from Akin’s mistakes. In the past week, two high-ranking officials have offered insensitive, if not outright offensive, statements about the country’s struggles with rape, which activists say highlight an endemic social problem. Despite the recent gang-rape and lynching of two teenage girls that brought international attention, some fear the recent comments signal the government’s reticence to confront the problem.
A minister in Madhya Pradesh state was the first to bumble forward. “This is a social crime which depends on men and women,” Babulal Gaur said, according to the Guardian. “Sometimes it’s right. Sometimes it’s wrong. Until there’s a complaint, nothing can happen.”
Next up was Ramsevak Paikra, a minister in Chhattisgarh state who manages law enforcement. He explained that rapes don’t happen on purpose. “Such incidents [rapes] do not happen deliberately,” he told reporters, though he later claimed he’d been misquoted. “These kind of incidents happen accidentally.”
If rape is an accident, it’s an accident that happens frequently in India. The Guardian reports that the number of reported rape cases in the past four decades surged 900 percent to 24,923 in 2012. The problem, however, may be much more significant than these numbers imply. With victims under familial pressure to keep quiet about the crimes, many rapes go unreported, and it’s difficult to know whether the increase signals more rapes or merely a growing willingness among victims to come forward. Some activists say only 10 percent of rapes are actually reported — while others estimate that as few as 1 percent are.
The recent spate of ill-advised comments on rape is nothing new in India. In April, the head of ruling party in Uttar Pradesh — where the recent gang-rapes occurred — said he was against a new law that calls for the execution of gang-rapists.
“Boys will be boys,” Mulayam Singh Yadav said. “They make mistakes.” He surmised that rape accusations arise out of inter-gender squabbles. “When boys and girls have differences, the girl gives a statement that ‘the boy raped me,’ and that poor boy gets a death sentence,” he said.
His colleague offered an even more stark take on women’s rights. According to the Hindustan Times, a Samajwadi Party leader, Abu Azmi, said any woman who has sex outside of marriage should be hanged. “Any woman if, whether married or unmarried, goes along with a man, with or without her consent, should be hanged,” he said.
He continued: “Rape is punishable by hanging in Islam. But here, nothing happens to women, only to men. Even the woman is guilty. Girls complain when someone touches them, and even when someone doesn’t touch them. It becomes a problem then…. If rape happens with or without consent, it should be punished as prescribed in Islam.”
The remarks may speak to a larger indifference in the state’s enforcement apparatus. An investigation by the magazine Tehelka found sweeping apathy, if not animosity, among police toward victims of sexual assault. The cops blamed the women for wearing revealing clothing or said they were prostitutes.
“There are [rape] cases, but 70 percent involve consensual sex,” one officer said. “Only if someone sees, or the money is denied, it gets turned into rape.” Another added: “She is dressed in a manner that people get attracted to her. In fact, she wants them to do something to her.”
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemned the comments by Indian officials, saying he was “especially appalled” by the recent gang-rape and lynchings. “We say no to the dismissive, destructive attitude of, ‘Boys will be boys,’ ” he said.