By Farhana Haque Rahman and Raghav Gaiha
ROME and NEW DELHI, Aug 6 2019 – On a cold night in December 2012, a ghastly crime was committed in New Delhi which stunned the world. Six men dragged helpless Nirbhaya-a 23-year-old female physiotherapy intern- to the back of the bus and raped her one by one. As she kept fighting off her assailants by biting them, one of the attackers inserted a rusted rod in her private part, ripping her genital organs and insides apart. She died a few days later. One of the accused died in police custody in the Tihar Jail. The juvenile was convicted of rape and murder and given the maximum sentence of three years’ imprisonment in a reform facility, and subsequently released. The Supreme Court awarded the death penalty but legal complications have prevented its execution.
A gruesome case occurred in Rohtak, a town in the northern state of Haryana (India). In 2017, a 23-year-old woman was gang raped by seven men, killed and smashed in the face with stones to conceal her identity. Her mangled body was found with stray dogs picking at the remains.
In January, 2019, a 16-year-old girl had simply decided to go to her boyfriend’s birthday party. A week later, her body was found along a highway, her head and one of her arms chopped off. Her face may have been burned with acid. In her small town in eastern India, it is forbidden for a teenage girl to date, and the police believe the girl’s father arranged for her to be killed — supposedly to protect the family’s honour.
Just as gruesome is the story of the 30-year-old Fatima who reported to UNFPA in Cox’s Bazar in southeast coast of Bangladesh in 2017, “My sister was killed after gang rape in front of me, and they threw hot water on my body. I can’t sleep, my life is a nightmare, I can’t bear the pain of losing my sister.”
Worse, minor girls remain highly vulnerable to brutal rapes and murder. In May, the same year, a ten-month-old baby girl was allegedly raped by a family member in Jamnagar district of the western state of Gujarat. Cases of brutal rapes of minor girls abound in Bangladesh too. The rape and murder of 13-year-old Ayesha Siddiqua Sumaiya, living in Rangpur, is a case in point. A student of Class VII, she was alone in her home – her parents were at a religious function – when a gang swooped on the minor, raping and then strangling her to death.
Rapes reported to the police as sexual violence surged from 39 per day to 93 per day in India in 2013. In Uttar Pradesh alone, five rapes occurred in 36 hours. Even these are underestimations, for two reasons. One is the exclusion of marital rapes, which are not a prosecutable crime. No less important is the fact that barely 1 per cent of victims of sexual violence report the crime to the police.
Report on Violence Against Women (VAW) Survey 2015, Bangladesh, paints in vivid detail high incidence of different forms of violence against women. During 2014, the most common form of partner violence was controlling behaviour, experienced by more than one third (38.8%) of ever-married women, followed by emotional violence (24.2%), physical violence (20.8%), sexual violence (13.3%) and economic violence (6.7%). Rates of lifetime partner violence (any form) were highest in rural areas (74.8% of ever-married women) and lowest in city corporation areas (54.4%). Rates in urban areas outside of city corporation areas were 71.1%, slightly lower than in rural areas.
More than one quarter (27.8%) of women reported lifetime physical violence by someone other than the husband (non-partner) and 6.2% reported experiencing such violence during the last 12 months. Rates were highest among adolescents for both lifetime (30.9%) and last 12 months (11.2%) non-partner physical violence.
Most sexual violence in India occurs in marriage; 10 percent of married women report sexual violence from husbands. The reporting percentage is low in part because marital rape is not a crime in India. Adolescent wives (13–19 years) are most vulnerable, reporting the highest rates of marital sexual violence of any age group. Adolescent girls also account for 24 percent of rape cases in the country, although they represent only 9 percent of the total female population.
Barely 1 percent of victims of sexual violence report the crime to the police in India. Similar evidence is found for Bangladesh. Notions of honour are central to the discourse on rape. The rape of a daughter, sister or wife is a source of dishonour to males within the family structure. This deters the reporting of rape to the police, reinforced by a belief in the impunity of perpetrators, the fear of retaliation, and humiliation by the police through physical and verbal abuse.
The consequences of domestic violence are grave and intergenerational: physical trauma, repeated physical assaults result in chronic disease (e.g. chronic pain); acute neurological (e.g. fainting) and cardiopulmonary (hypertension) symptoms; life-style risk behaviours (substance misuse); psychiatric disorders (depression); and children and adolescents adversely affected by witnessing domestic violence (post-traumatic stress disorder). Besides, domestic violence also results in malnutrition among women and children.
One major problem with anti-rape laws is that their enforcement is feeble and painfully slow, and thus largely inconsequential as a deterrent to sexual violence.
Dominance and control over women are set in male attributes and behaviour (“masculinity”), regarded as a shared social ideal. Violence is not necessarily a part of masculinity, but the two are often closely linked, mediated by class, caste and region.
Interventions that address masculinity seem to be more effective than those that ignore the powerful influence of gender norms and systems of inequality. Effective women-focused initiatives strengthen resilience against violence by combining economic empowerment with greater awareness of rights and women’s relationship skills. Behavioural changes are, however, slower than changes in male attitudes.
In conclusion, although rise in sexual violence against women and girls is scary and abhorrent, there are grounds for optimism.
(Farhana Haque Rahman is Director General of IPS Inter Press Service; she is a communications expert and former senior United Nations official. Raghav Gaiha is (Hon.) Professorial Research Fellow, Global Development Institute, University of Manchester, England, and Visiting Scholar, Population Studies Centre, University of Pennsylvania, USA).