Going by the crime statistics, either India is far safer for women than is generally assumed or too many rapes do not get reported. It is more likely the latter.
One reason for the silence of victims is revealed in the Sohaila Abdulali essay that was published in feminist journal Manushi in 1983, and which has now gone viral after the national outrage over the horrific sexual assault on a young girl in a New Delhi bus. Abdulali was a 17-year-old who was raped in Mumbai, but who had the courage to tell her story in a country where the victim of gender violence is supposed to be shamed.
“The police were insensitive, contemptuous, and somehow managed to make me the guilty party. When they asked me what had happened, I told them quite directly, and they were scandalized that I was not a shy, blushing victim. When they said there would be publicity, I said that was all right. It had honestly never occurred to me that Rashid or I could be blamed. When they said I would have to go into a home for juvenile delinquents for my “protection.” I was willing to live with pimps and rapists, in order to be able to bring my attackers to justice,” she wrote.
The police should be the first port of call for citizens in distress. What Abdulali went through that night only strengthens the view that the Indian police system is unsympathetic to victims of gender violence. Hence the call for police reforms and, as a first step, ensuring that there are more women in the force.
Recent research by Lakshmi Iyer of Harvard Business School, Anandi Mani of University of Warwick, and Prachi Mishra and Petia Topalova of the International Monetary Fund shows that one solution is greater political representation for women. Areas that have seen an increase in the proportion of elected women officials see an increase in documented crimes against women, not because gender violence increases but because women are more likely to report such crimes. They also add: “Large scale membership of women in local councils affects crime against them more than their presence in higher level leadership positions” — so think of local panchayat heads rather than Mamata Banerjee.
Other economists have also showed that village councils that are run by women tend to spend more on public goods valued by their gender, such as drinking water. Residents of villages managed by women are also less likely to pay bribes.
While most of the immediate reaction to the New Delhi rape has been emotional— and understandably so—the national debate will at some point of time need to move to the next stage. What is to be done? Greater political representation for women and police reforms should be two important components of any strategy to make India safer for women.