Photo: Mint
Photo: Mint

Opinion | Changing the status quo on sexual assault

Some events, such as the Nirbhaya case of 2012, have the potential to disrupt an existing equilibrium

On the morning of 17 December, 2012, Delhi woke up to a horror story of gang rape and torture of a woman who eventually succumbed to the brutalities. As widespread protests erupted following the ‘Nirbhaya’ case, people and specifically women became increasingly aware of their vulnerability—that another such incident may be lurking just around the next corner.

We know that sexual assaults and rape are likely to be underreported not only in India but across the world due to the stigma involved. But the trends matter nonetheless. An increasing trend in such crimes could reflect both an actual increase in the occurrence of such crimes as well an increase in such crimes being registered.

This plays out in the data on incidence of rapes and sexual assaults reported by women following the Nirbhaya case. This data is made available by the National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB). The proportionate increase in reported incidence of rapes in India between 2012 and 2013 was 30%, while for assaults it was a massive 58%. Assaults include cases of sexual harassment, intent to disrobe, voyeurism, stalking and other physical acts which do not involve penetration and thus are, by definition, lower in criminal content than rape.

One striking feature of the yearly incidence of rapes and assaults reported per 100,000 female population in Delhi is a spike in the reported cases in 2013. There is a clear uptick post 2012 in reporting of such crimes in Delhi, which is much larger than the previous trend until 2012. The reported incidence of assaults increased from 18 per 100,000 females in 2012 to 43 in 2013. This is more than a 125% increase. The increase in reported rapes (at 42% by 2014) is muted in comparison to assaults. A possible reason is that reporting rape is encumbered by larger associated societal stigmatization.

When looking at similar reports for other states, the largest spike in assaults is also observed in states that are in close proximity to Delhi. In Haryana, for instance, assaults per 100,000 women between 2012 and 2013 went up from four to 12, in Punjab from three to eight, in Rajasthan from seven to 14, in Uttar Pradesh from three to seven, in Uttarakhand from three to six and in Himachal Pradesh from seven to 14. This shows at least a doubling of such reports by women in states neighbouring Delhi. It is unlikely that the true incidence increased manifold in one year since there was no such existing rising trend.

This increase may seem part of a rising general crime rate, but notably there is no such spike observed for other crimes like domestic violence, murder, theft and grievous hurt for Delhi or its neighbouring states in 2013. Another possible reason could be the stricter laws that were introduced nationally in the wake of the protests. The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act of 2013 made punishments stringent, repealed regressive tests for gathering evidence once rape was reported and put in motion the setting up of fast track courts. It also made the definition of assaults clearer and reporting easier by dividing he offence into sub-categories like stalking, voyeurism and unwanted advances. But if these changes were applicable to the entire country, why is such a rise in assaults reported in Delhi and nearby areas while no such drastic increase is observed in most other states?

There are two possibilities here. One, effective and gender sensitive policing post the rape resulting in greater registration of rapes and assaults at police stations, since NCRB reports only registered complaints. But this cannot be the only explanation since it is unlikely that a third of reported incidence was being registered in Delhi before 2013. A more likely explanation is the signal sent by the gut-wrenching incident and extensive media reporting around it to women living in Delhi and around, who were the most susceptible to such danger.

The protests may have encouraged women to come forward and report assaults they faced. The increased reporting of such cases is likely to be a result of the dawning of a realization that events dismissed as trivial (and hence not reported) can have grave consequences later on, not only for one’s own security but also for the security of other women, who may be the next potential targets. This effectively could have changed the way women looked at sexual assaults, as attacks that should not be overlooked.

Some events have the potential to disrupt an existing equilibrium. In the recent context of the #MeToo campaign, a few shared experiences of sexual harassment by women on social media triggered an onslaught of similar reports by scores of other women. The consequent firestorm has stoked discussions on workplace harassment faced by women across the country and placed it in the public eye. This is despite some accusing the movement of being too elitist, undermining the true realities faced by women in the country. At times, there are also accusations that the allegations are trivial.

A bigger question raised by the current uproar is: what makes women report incidents which are often supposed to be taken as a cost paid for the choices they make by stepping out beyond the walls of their homes? It takes a deeper realization to come forth with experiences which at the moment of occurrence may have appeared trivial—but in a new light, appear part of a bigger problem that afflicts society at large. Sometimes, to change the status quo, a black swan event, even one as horrible as Nirbhaya, is needed.

Kanika Mahajan and Saloni Khurana are, respectively, assistant professor at Ashoka University and research associate at the Indian Institute of Foreign Trade.

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