Since the beginning of 2008, numerous incidents of rape and murder of women in the country - across the class and economic spectrum - have surfaced. Tourists, locals, young, old... no woman has been spared, it seems.
Be it the recent heinous rape and murder of British teenager Scarlett Keeling in Goa or the shameful public assault on two women outside a suburban Mumbai hotel by a mob of around 70 on the night of December 31, or the report of a guesthouse owner in Udaipur, Rajasthan, raping a British journalist; a shocked Canadian family hastily quitting Kumarakom, Kerala, on account of the molestation of their two minor girls by a hotel watchman or the arrest of a 58- year-old principal in Delhi for the rape of a minor girl on his school premises, the list of crimes and innocent victims is endless.
Statistics for 2006, released in January this year by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), reveal that every hour 18 Indian women become victims of sexual crimes with rape being the fastest growing crime in the country. In a quarter of the rape cases, the victims were minors.
Disquieting as it is, while crimes like murder, robbery, kidnapping and rioting - classified as 'violent' under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) - have recorded a drop in numbers, rape cases have ballooned by a shameful 678 per cent since 1971. According to the NCRB, between 1971 and 2006, while murder cases about doubled, kidnapping/abduction cases registered an increase of 149 per cent, dacoity/rioting cases showed a remarkable decline. Overall, the occurrence of violent crimes has been whittled down by about 16 per cent.
Given this backdrop - and the fact that India is on a remarkable upward economic growth trajectory - the ratcheting up of sexual crimes against women is disconcerting. To make matters worse, among the 35 cities with a population of more than a million, Delhi tops the list of sexual crimes against women with 4,134 cases (nearly a fifth of the total of such attacks). In other words, a third of the rapes and a fifth of molestations were recorded in Delhi. Hyderabad came in a notch lower with 1,755 cases.
Overall, Andhra Pradesh recorded the most number of crimes against women - 21,484 cases or 13 per cent of the total cases in 2006. Uttar Pradesh registered 9.9 per cent, while Madhya Pradesh reported the highest number of rape cases at 2,900.
The Section 375 of the IPC defines rape as "an intentional, unlawful sexual intercourse with a woman without her consent". But, as activists and lawyers have been arguing for years, this somewhat narrow definition of rape does not include acts of forced oral sex, or sodomy, actions which are criminalized under Section 354 (which deals with 'criminal assault on a woman with intent to outrage her modesty') and Section 377 that concerns 'carnal intercourse against the order of nature'.
Ergo, this limited classification of 'rape' - and the resultant legal ambiguity - has weakened the ability of the law enforcement regime in India to crack down on it. Moreover, even the government has admitted to the inadequacies of the present laws.
What is also irksome in the Indian context is that in rape cases, the onus is always on the woman to prove that she was the victim, which puts her on the defensive, indirectly strengthening her perpetrator's case.
Meenakshi Pahwal, a Delhi lawyer, says, "In any case, a traumatized rape victim finds it tough to stand up to the court's scrutiny. When such a vulnerable person is further exposed to a battery of embarrassing personal questions, she would naturally feel psychologically disadvantaged. That's the reason why we have such few convictions in rape cases in India. Most victims either end up withdrawing their cases or reaching an out-of-court settlement." Another ludicrous way out, though occasionally embraced by rape victims in desperation, points out Pahwal, is to 'marry' the rapist.
Expressing alarm over the increasing rape and molestation cases across the country, the National Commission for Women recently requested the Union Women and Child Development Ministry to enforce stricter punishment in such cases. The body has suggested an amendment to the laws on sexual assault and the draft of a Sexual Assault Bill to make such punishments more stringent. The Commission recommends that any sexual act - transpiring against the woman's (complainant's) will - should be made punishable with an imprisonment of not less than seven years, extendable up to 10 years and a fine.
Delhi-based psychologist Sunidhi Sarma feels that culture aspects too have a role to play in the rising crime graph against women. Indian women, she feels, have always been objectified as sexual beings, as procreators. "Their primary function in society," says the expert, "is still seen as that of homemakers and subservient to men. Till we banish this men-are-superior mindset, crimes against women will continue to rise."
Apart from the negative psychosocial fallout, adverse publicity generated by reports of sexual assaults on women, especially foreign visitors, also earns the country a bad reputation. In fact, Tourism Minister Ambika Soni had recently called for consultations with state governments on measures to be adopted to counter such trends. Already travel advisories issued by the US, the UK, Canada and France forewarn women tourists about the possibility of physical harassment and molestation in major tourism destinations such as Delhi, Agra (Uttar Pradesh), Goa and Himachal Pradesh.
"It is truly embarrassing to encounter queries about tourists' safety on our delegations abroad," reveals a joint secretary in the Ministry of Tourism. "While on the one hand we're trying to project India as an imminent superpower, on the other we have to be on the back foot about how 'unsafe' the country can be for women tourists."
In view of the women tourists' lack of safety, the Centre had recently convened a meeting with state governments to review the existing safety measures. However, though all state governments were advised to deploy special women police at popular tourist sites, so far only 10 states have done so.
Embarrassment aside, maybe the government would like to more than just 'consider' the suggestions that have been given by the various commissions and women's bodies, time and again.