The rise in sexual crimes against women is a growing concern in India, widely reported and debated upon. Delhi has seen at least one rape every day this year, with five cases of sexual assault occurring within hours of each other recently. Mayawati's Uttar Pradesh has been declared a state that sees at least two rapes every day. But guess which state has the worst record on this score? The one that is said to enjoy the best human development indices in the country and which is promoted as "God's Own Country": Kerala. Unfortunately, despite having the highest female literacy rate in the country, India's southern-most state has emerged with the worst record in terms of protecting women.
Sample this: According to Crime Branch statistics, 357 rape cases have already been reported in Kerala in just three months this year, as against 617 for the whole of 2010. This means that at least four or five women have been sexually attacked every day. Statistics also reveal that 60 per cent of the violence against women takes place within the home. If you think this violence is limited to domestic violence, think again. Young girls are at constant risk of being sexually abused or raped, at the hands of not just their neighbours, but their brothers, cousins, uncles, and even fathers.
So it seems that if India is fourth in the list of countries where women are sexually harassed the most, Kerala must top the list of states reporting the maximum atrocities.
Take a look at this recent roster of crimes: Soumya, who while travelling in the ladies' compartment of the Shornur Passenger train, was pushed out by one Govindasway, and then raped and killed. A nurse returning home from duty in an autorickshaw in Kottayam had to jump out of the moving vehicle to escape an attempt of sexual assault. She sustained serious injuries in the process. A woman travelling alone in a taxi in Pathanamthitta in South Kerala was gang-raped by the driver and his friends. Even a woman IG of police has not been spared: She was reportedly harassed while on her morning walk.
But what has truly triggered widespread horror and shock is the serial rape case of a 14-year-old girl from Parur, near Kochi, which came to light recently. She was first raped by her own father, who later pushed her into the sex trade. According to a rough estimate she had been sexually abused by more than 100 people - ranging from politicians and businessmen, to contractors and even filmmakers and artistes.
When the police busted this particular sex racket, the teenager revealed that her father first raped her and then threatened to kill her if she disclosed this to her mother. An agent who provided young extras to the TV industry, this monster dad didn't just stop at that. Tempted by the monetary gains that could be had, he decided to trade on his daughter's body. When she refused to cooperate, he tied her younger brother upside down to a ceiling fan and threatened to kill him if she did not comply. She yielded. Once the case came to public notice, an apathetic police force suddenly went on an arresting spree and has brought over 30 people into custody in this connection, including a CPM local secretary.
Sadly, this is not an isolated incident. Just days after the Parur incident came to light, another young girl in Narakkal, a short distance from Kochi, complained to the police that her father had been raping her for the last three years. The case of a 14-year-old girl also raped by her father and then trafficked to the sex industry also emerged. Today, the father and other criminals are behind bars.
Yet another alarming trend that has reared its ugly head is that of 12- and 13-year-old school boys raping or attempting to rape four or five year old girls in their neighbourhood. In a recent case, one girl was found dead in a pond and medical examination revealed that there was attempted rape.
What are the factors that have contributed to this complete degeneration of social values and mores within Kerala society? Why have incidents of fathers sexually exploiting their daughters and friends assaulting their neighbours become so commonplace? Psychiatrist Dr C.J. John of the Medical Trust Hospital blames it on the media. "Advertisements project women in a demeaning manner. Their bodies are framed as objects for sexual gratification. Sexual content pervades the visual media and internet. This constant exposure to pornographic visuals, even soft porn, is certainly having an impact," he observes. Adds Dr John, "A general lack of openness about sexuality, the all-pervasiveness ignorance about sexual health, and a denial of the inroads pornographic material has made into society, are all factors to be considered."
Social scientist Dr P.O. George, who heads the Juvenile Justice Committee in Trichur (a government constituted district committee), is also worried about the emergence of sexual perversion transcending even familial bonds and leaving daughters vulnerable at an early stage in their lives when they lack agency and information. He reveals that in the one year that the welfare committee has been constituted more than 15 incidents of this kind have come to its notice. He also believes that the pervasiveness of pornographic content is one of the major causes for the present scenario, although he also points to other causative factors. "The increasing divorce rate, the disintegration of families, the fact that parents today have no time for their children, have all played their part," he says.
But far from provoking a public conversation on the right of every woman to live and move without fear, what is emerging is an ugly moral vigilantism. Women moving out after dark are all-too-often labeled as being sexually available. Thasni Banu, who is in her twenties and works in a BPO office at Kochi's Infopark, was attacked by some men on the road. On the day of the incident, she was being dropped off by a male friend on his bike. Just as they were nearing the office her companion stopped to buy a cigarette. That is when a crowd closed in and began to abuse her. When Thasni retorted back, one man came forward aggressively. Thasni slapped him. The infuriated man slapped her back and twisted her arm so badly, she had to be admitted into hospital. Thasni was courageous enough to alert the police about this incident through a friend, but no action was taken on the grounds that she had not filed a formal complaint.
Women's organisations protested the violence against Thasni and managed to force Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy to instruct his police to take action against the men who assaulted and abused the youngster. A couple of arrests have been made in this case. But what is to be done to ensure that such incidents don't occur in the first place?
In 'God's Own Country' today, women continue to lack a sense of security, whether at home, in public spaces or in the workplace and unfortunately the State, and those who administer it, continue to be in denial.
By arrangement with WFS