Parents protest against the school authorities after a eight-year-old girl was allegedly raped by a school boy, at the Sacred Heart Convent School in Beas in India's Punjab state on December 16, 2019. (Photo by Narinder Nanu/AFP)
Seven years after the brutal gang rape and death of a college student on a bus in India’s federal capital New Delhi, a Court issued an execution order for four convicts on Jan. 7.The 2012 barbaric assault on a 23-year-old medical student triggered massive street demonstrations and a nationwide reckoning over rape and sexual violence against women in India.It led to changes in the anti-rape law, including the introduction of the death penalty. But changes in legislation have done little to change the scenario in India.
In 2018, India was ranked the most dangerous country in the world to be a woman due to the high risk of sexual violence and slave labor, according to a global survey by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.Each day on average, some 100 women are raped in India. In 2016, India recorded 39,608 rape cases, at least 520 of them of children below the age of six, according to data released by the National Crime Records Bureau.
South Asian scourge
Neighboring South Asian countries are not much behind in rape spree.
In Bangladesh the crime continues to increase phenomenally. At least 1,413 women were raped in 2019, almost double of the 2018 figure of 732, according to Ain-O-Salish Kendra (ASK), a leading rights watchdog. In addition, 1,005 children were raped in 2019, a sharp raise from 571 cases in 2018, according to Bangladesh Child Rights Forum.
In Pakistan, a rape occurs in every hour, and a gang rape in every two hours, according to Human Rights Watch.Every year, hundreds of minority Hindu and Christian girls and young women are kidnapped, forcibly married and converted to Islam in Pakistan, according to the National Human Rights Commission of Pakistan These forced marriages are tantamount to rape with impunity.The situation in Sri Lanka is marginally less horrific. However, in recent years, a series of rape of foreign tourists has tarnished the image of the island nation. The perpetrators included military police, a monk, a hotel owner, teenagers, construction workers and camp counselors, showing gravity of Sri Lanka’s rape problem.
Culture of impunity
Rape or sexual violence is one of the worst forms of violence against women, but sadly it is a tragic reality for millions.
About 35 percent of women and girls in the world face some form of sexual violence from men in their lifetime, according to U.N. Women. Less than 40 percent of victims report the rape and only about 10 percent seek help from formal institutions such as hospitals and the police.
The situation is even worse in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka despite having strong anti-rape laws, which are the legacy of the British colonial era. But there are effective legal loopholes that lead to a culture of impunity over rape.
As rape is a cause of social ostracism, often alleged rapists are bailed out due to lack of witnesses and evidence. The accused are often from influential families and backed by politicians, police and lawyers, allowing them to walk free and commit the crime again and again.
In most cases rape victims are from the poor and lower classes, but they receive little attention from the police or even the media. For example, a student at Dhaka University, Bangladesh’s top public university, was raped on Jan. 5. On the same day, a sixth-grader from a poor family committed suicide after being raped.
The rape of the university student sparked massive public and media outrage, forcing law enforcers to act swiftly and arrest the culprit within three days. On the other hand, the rape and death of the sixth-grader has simply been forgotten.
Social and cultural conditioning
In largely male-dominated and patriarchal South Asian societies, women are considered inferior and men must always subjugate women in all places. Often violence is seen as a “correcting tool for bad women.”
When a rape occurs, most people put the blame on the victim for “inviting trouble” by asking what kind of clothes she was wearing, why she went out after dark or why she travelled alone.
Instead of shaming and blaming the rapist, people accuse the victim of bringing the crime on herself. Even parents feel guilty that their daughter’s honor was “ruined” and she is unworthy of a good marriage in the future.
This strange and deep-rooted social and cultural conditioning shows why so many rape cases go unreported and rape victims remain silent in South Asia.
Early marriage and marital rape
All four countries practise early marriage and unequal marriage, which results in the rape of thousands of underage girls every year.
Poverty, illiteracy and lack of social security are some of the major causes of early marriage. But the governments of those countries are less interested in tackling the main causes of early marriage and deal with the issue only by formulating laws.
Marital rape is one of the least talked about issues in South Asian societies. In most cases, a man takes it for granted that by virtue of marriage he has unlimited access to the body of his wife and can do whatever he wishes.
Strong anti-rape laws and the death penalty won’t suffice to curb the horrific rape culture in South Asia nor around the world. A lot of changes are required to uplift our families, societies and states from the massive moral bankruptcy that allows rape to happen over and over without repercussions.
The most important is changing our view about women — seeing them as equal and worthy human beings, not as commodities or tools for pleasure. We can only do this if we believe strong men are those who stand for women, not those who suppress women.
* Rock Ronald Rozario is a journalist and writer for UCA News, based in Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh.