Kolkata’s Park Street rape case made headlines because of chief minister Mamata Banerjee knee-jerk reaction in dismissing it as an attempt to defame her government.
But such cases are reported from around the country with alarming regularity. In the same week as the Kolkata case, five women — two minors, a second-year college student, an Army officer’s wife and a mentally unstable woman — were raped in Delhi over three days, while Indore district reported four gang-rapes.
Rape cases across India are rising, with even erstwhile safe metros such as Bangalore and Kolkata reporting violent crimes against women, including rapes. Last year, 65 rape and 308 molestation cases were reported from Bangalore, with Kolkata registering 32 rape and 226 molestation cases.
“Despite growing urbanisation, traditional societal mindsets vis-à-vis women have not changed. This, along with an absence of strong penal deterrence against crimes such as rape, has resulted in a spurt in cases. Social silence encourages people committing such crime,” says Meenakshi Lekhi, senior Supreme Court advocate.
Another reason why women have become more vulnerable than in the past is because they are coming out of their homes and venturing into erstwhile male territory, says Urvashi Butalia, author and founder of Zubaan.
“More women now work at all hours, creating strong competition for jobs that challenges some men and makes them hit back,” says Butalia.
Crime statistics corroborate her view. According to the National Crime Records Bureau data, rape cases have gone up 791% since 1972 when such cases started getting reported. From 2,487 rape cases registered in 1972, the figure has touched 22,172 in 2010.
Lax law enforcement has aggravated the problem further. “To start with, rape/ sexual harassment cases are under-reported because of stigma. The few that are reported suffer because of shoddy investigation, resulting in an extremely low conviction rate. This sends out the wrong message and prevents women from complaining,” says Lekhi.
Agrees Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit, “The sense of fear while venturing out alone at night is very palpable. It is very disturbing. The police needs to be more prompt and show greater sense of responsibility,” she says.
Delhi tops the list of metros with the maximum number of rape and molestation cases reported in India. “There is a need for social awareness about respecting women. Society needs to change the way it looks at its women. It’s not there right now,” she says.
Lack of sensitivity on part of India’s political class has not helped.
Apart from Dikshit infamously remaking that “one should not be adventurous” after journalist Soumya Vishwanathan was shot dead on her way home from work at 3am in 2008 and West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee calling the Park Street rape case “concocted” last month, National Commission for Women (NCW) chairperson Mamta Sharma remarked that women take being “sexy” positively. This attitude adds to the existing insensitivity on part of the police dealing with rape cases.
“Instead of carrying out a proper inquiry, a victim is questioned about what she was wearing, what was she doing alone at the time etc. Questions like these are not asked in murder or dacoity cases, so why are women asked all this?” says Anita Agnihotri, member secretary, National Commission for Women.
“More than the attitude of society towards women, it’s the attitude of police that needs to change. Unless rape cases are dealt with severely, a strong message won’t be sent across,” she adds.
Women and Child Development minister Krishna Tirath recommends a two-pronged approach.
“Sensitise the youth to respect women and fast-track the police and judicial system. Stringent punishment needs to be meted out to send a strong message to violators,” she says.
“We have already finalised the draft Protection of Women against Sexual Harassment at Workplace Bill, 2010. We hope that it will be passed in the coming budget session of Parliament,” adds Tirath.
Where you can get help
NCW helpline: 011-13237166. Alternately you can also call 1091/1291
Delhi Police Women’s Cell: 011-24673366/ 24674156/24677699. Respective state police have their own helpline numbers for women in distress.