Has the brutalisation of women risen alarmingly? Reports of the mass molestation of women in Bengaluru on new year’s eve in the presence of a posse of police cannot be dismissed as an isolated episode if juxtaposed with subsequent rapes in the same city, an upsurge in gang rapes and rapes of minor girls by relatives and neighbours that sometimes result in tragic deaths.
Following official denials, and chiding by a state minister about how inappropriately the ‘victims’ were dressed and their westernised lifestyle, public uproar led to the delayed arrests of a few suspects. The police apathy is outrageous for its failure to stop physical assaults on women. Equally outrageous is the crowds hanging around as mute spectators of a salacious drama in which women were groped, stripped and assaulted. The fact that large numbers of rapists roam free is not just a manifestation of inefficiency of the judiciary and the police but also of bestial masculinity.
As these are symptoms of a deeper malady?
In order to understand the surge in rapes - their number more than doubled between 2001 and 2015 -we have analysed what happened in a few states. The focus is on some key variables that explain the differences in the incidence of rapes not just across the states but also over time.
The incidence of rapes is determined by interplay of several factors: Economic, demographic, social, efficiency of the police and judicial systems, and exposure to mass media. Our analysis shows the following: The more affluent a state is, the lower is the incidence of rapes but the effect is small; the greater the sex imbalance (or the lower the number of women to men), the higher is the incidence of rapes; the higher the ratio of female workers to male workers, the lower is the occurence of rapes; somewhat surprisingly, the higher the media exposure (measured as readership/ literate population), the higher is the incidence of rapes; the effect of alcoholism is contributory and signficant; open defecation is associated with higher occurrence of rapes - especially in rural areas; and, finally, the higher the conviction rate (number of persons convicted/number of persons registered for committing a rape), the lower is the incidence of rape.
Women are unwilling to report even those incidents that fit the legal definition of rape or attempted rape. Sometimes this is due to their successful resistance and the ambiguous feelings that they have about whether the harm that was inflicted reached the level of a criminal act, and their doubts about the integrity of the system to which they have to report.
However, with expanding employment opportunities for women, they have become more autonomous and assertive. So some increase in reporting rapes is not unlikely. Although media coverage of sexual violence and rapes has increased significantly after the ghastly December 16, 2012, rape there are reporting biases.
Massive coverage is frequently given to rape incidents that take place where the channel’s bureaus are based. When the location shifts to small towns the level of the media interest drops. Custodial rape in conflict areas in India (Kashmir, North East and Chhattisgarh) is often ignored, and considered less credible to merit reporting in the larger national interest.So on balance an increase in the reporting of rapes can’t be ruled out.
Recalling the causal relationships identified earlier, we analyse what happened in some of the best states (with the lowest incidence of rapes), worst states (with the highest incidence of rapes) and a special case, Delhi (where the incidence of rapes rose four times).
Let us first consider the best state in terms of low incidence of rapes in 2001. Karnataka was the top ranked state in 2001 but worsened by 2015. The number of rapes more than doubled. While there was a slight increase in the sex ratio, and much greater affluence, there was a drop in the ratio of female workers to male workers, a drop in the conviction rate and a sharp increase in open defecation. As a result, Karnataka ceased to be among the three best performers in 2015.
Madhya Pradesh was among the three worst performers in 2001 and it remained so in 2015 but with one-and-a-half times higher incidence of rapes. The female worker/male worker ratio reduced, and open defecation and alcoholism rose. Their positive effects on rapes more than offset the favourable effects of the higher sex ratio and greater affluence.
Delhi stands out as the number of rapes increased about six times. The sex ratio rose, there was greater affluence and a higher female worker/male worker ratio. While these were likely to reduce the number of rapes, their negative effects were more than compensated by higher open defecation, alcoholism, and a marked reduction in the conviction rate.
It is clear then that curbing of bestial masculinity and abysmal inefficiency of the police and judicial system pose daunting challenges.
Geetika Dang is an independent researcher; Vani S Kulkarni is lecturer in Sociology, University of Pennsylvania; and Raghav Gaiha is (Honorary) Professorial Fellow, Global Development Institute, University of Manchester
The views expressed are personal