Writing about how crime rates in Britain continued to fall despite the economic slump and high youth unemployment, The Economist magazine last month was positive about the fact that rape was bucking the trend. This, the author argued, was a good sign, because it could suggest that rape - historically a grossly under-recorded crime - is being reported to the police more often.
Rape is the horrible secret most women keep to themselves. Even the more open societies such as Britain and the USA struggle to get victims to come forward and report their ordeal. A survey by Mumsnet, a social networking site that launched the "We Believe You" campaign last year, reveals that more than a third of British women who were surveyed had been subjected to some kind of sexual assault, and one in 10 had been raped.
While barely a third of British victims went to the police, another third told no one at all, not even their close friends about the incident. Nearly half of the respondents felt the legal system, media and the society in general were unsympathetic towards women who reported rape. Sounds familiar? Not really, because it is much worse at home.
Following the fatal gang rape in Delhi on December 16, our government tried to reform the system by stricter penalties (even death in most brutal cases), better-defined laws on sexual assaults, putting all rape cases in fast-track courts and fixing police's responsibility in registration and investigation of such cases.
Despite some blatant violations, such as the Delhi Police trying to hush up the rape of a five-year-old girl who was brutalised by her neighbour, and registering a case of abduction in the gang rape of a 13-year-old, these reforms have made possible a 158% jump in the number of rape cases registered in the city.
Even as more women and families of child abuse victims are feeling emboldened to come out and seek help, mere registration of cases can't get them justice. The Centre's advisory to set specialised sexual assault treatment units in government hospitals has not been followed. Rape victims are examined and treated in the same emergency rooms as other patients.
The 13-year-old girl, since she was gang-raped last month, has attempted to kill herself thrice, the last time in the general ward at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. Unable to cope up with the trauma, the prying eyes of other patients and their attendants in the open ward, she allegedly swallowed a cocktail of medicines but was saved by her sister. She was shifted to the psychiatry ward only the next day.
Endless rounds of police stations, the invasive and repetitive questioning, visits to victim's home by uniformed policemen, lack of proper counselling and delay in disbursal of financial compensation often make families of victims regret they reported the crime at all.
It is worse in cases of minor victims whose predators are often somebody known to them - neighbours, teachers, relatives or even fathers. Such cases are generally reported from lower income groups where financial and emotional help is required the most.
In Delhi, rape crisis intervention centres are running without adequate government support. Getting financial aid requires numerous approvals. The victim cannot get any money unless she has a bank account. Even interim help to cover basic expenses such as medicines and trips to hospital and police station is caught in bureaucratic delays.
Under-reporting of rapes emboldens rapists. It makes police crime charts look better. In our present system, it also helps rape victims escape the ordeal that is akin to getting raped a second time. Unless that changes, legal reforms or better policing alone cannot make the vulnerable feel secure.