Wednesday, December 19, 2012

It will take time to reduce the scourge of rapes….but let’s make the beginning

It’s a sad commentary of how men treat women around the world, not just in India. When I looked up figures of rapes around the world, I couldn’t believe what I found. At first, I thought that it was a case of under-reporting in India and over-reporting in the western world. But when I read the details, I realized that the numbers were indeed correct. This should make us sit back, pause and learn from the experiences of others, and then make what is best for our country. Just making strict rules will help no one’s cause.

First the statistics (Wikipedia – UN). India has about 1.8 (maybe 2 now) incidents of rape per lac of population. The total number of rapes is about 24000 and on a population base of between 1.2 and 1.3 billion, the average per lac comes to about 1.8-2.0. Let’s take the comparative numbers in “liberal” Western Europe. Sweden is the world’s rape capital with a figure of 63.5 per lac of population. Yes, 63.5. Even if there was a case of over-reporting, that number is truly horrific and makes you wonder whether our understanding of Europe is founded on correct assumptions. There’s more. It is 29 in the UK, 19 in Norway, 16 in France, 9 in Germany and Netherlands, a full 28 in Belgium, 10 in Austria, 8 in Italy and 7 in India’s favorite tourist destination of Switzerland. Shocking? Wait till you hear figures of the US. A full 27 per lac. The US number has been established by their Department of Justice basis several studies. Rape in US colleges is rampant, with as many as 15-20% women in colleges admitting they had been raped during their college tenure. Unbelievable. Closer home in Asia, it’s a high 13 in South Korea (another developed country), 6 in Phillipines, 2.7 in strict Singapore, 7 in the sleaze capital of Thailand, and an equally atrocious 8 and 7 in our neighbors Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. These figures are shocking. And while I won’t take all of them at face value, the larger message cannot be ignored. Rape is hardly an Indian phenomenon (though I am sure, a lot of rape within marriage goes unreported).

In comparison, India gets away lighter and is the company of countries like Canada (1.7), Hongkong (1.6), Greece (1.9) and Hungary (2.3). This is hardly going to be of any solace to our women though. What it may do however is make us think about what increases or decreases the occurance of rape.

First, it is not to do with increased police presence, or higher sophistication of devices for then the Western world should have been a safe haven for women. It’s also not to do with faster justice systems for again the western world sets the best standards there. All this will help of course, but it won’t be sufficient. So what is it to do with?

I again feel it is to do with increasing awareness of rapes and the consequent penalties that come; and bringing in a certain social respect for women. It’s a moot point whether the West gives more respect to women or countries like India. Sure, in the workplace, there is far more equality in the West. Sure, there are many more “women’s achievers” in the West. But going by other parameters, the West has as little regard for a women’s rights as here in India. Almost all lude jokes around the world deal with women’s body parts. Sex is the most common subject of any “nonveg” joke anywhere in the world. Hollywood is full of women stereotypess. So, yes, while women have many more liberties in the west than in India, one cannot say that with qualifications.

India can set some global benchmarks here. We need to go back to our core value systems where half our gods are women and all our religious scriptures give a special place to women. Somehow, we have lost the connect these days. Our schools don’t re-inforce respect for women. Like I mentioned yesterday, a course in moral science should be made compulsory for school children. There must be special camps conducted in colleges to highlight the penalties that face a man when he attempts rape. I doubt if these louts who raped the Delhi girl even knew that their entire lives would be decimated by one perverted act. It’s important we try the “softer” methods in addition to all the harsh ones that are being discussed now.

It’s the same with sexual harassment in offices. I am surprised at how little awareness there exists amongst men about what constitutes sexual harassment in offices. Narrating a vulgar joke in front of women colleagues is a harassment, as it rightly embarrases the woman colleague. Looking strangely at women, even if there is no touching or molestation, is harassment, as rape is hardly a physical act alone. I have tried repeatedly in my organization to make men aware of all this. After constant reminders, we have licked this problem, but the effort has to be repeated time and again. In the last several years, we have not had any case of sexual harassment even though we have an anonymous ethics committee to which any victim can complain.

I think we should also be careful not to make rules that are impractical. Or that make the pendulum swing the other way. For example, Section 498(A) of the Indian penal code was designed to protect women from dowry harassment. It was designed poorly, maybe under pressure of some lobby groups. As a result, a man or his family can be arrested merely on a complaint of a woman. In August 2010, Justices Dalveer Bhandari and K S Radhakrishnan of the SC expressed concern at the rise in number of complaints under Section 498A, "We come across a large number of such complaints which are not even bona fide and are filed with oblique motives." Laws should be made with a cold head, not in the heat of the moment.

The real truth is that the reducing rape statistics will take time. But we must begin immediately. And we must have both soft and hard approaches. Strong litigation – not however swinging the other way – is a must. But the softer “educative” approach will work better. Lets not lose heart….

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