Home / Opinion / India has a major sexual assault problem

Why are women in India so often blamed for being raped or sexually assaulted? Though victim-blaming defies reason, the belief that women provoke—or deserve—sexual assault is widespread. Explanations range from “boys will be boys" to “jeans cause rape", but men themselves are rarely blamed.

A recent documentary by The Quint explored social attitudes that normalize rape, presenting it as “consensual". What appears to be an oxymoron, points to a macabre explanation: beyond legality, sexual assault takes on deeper, varied meanings based on social and cultural context. Often, justifying rape is merely the tip of a larger “iceberg" of patriarchal attitudes. These are explored in several surveys designed by the Lok Foundation and administered between 2014 and 2017 by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) to between 72,384 and 168,165 respondents across India.

Clothing and control: Attitudes towards women’s clothing are revealing. In the first survey, men and women were asked what they considered “inappropriate" clothing for young women out with friends. Skirts, unacceptable to about 88%, and pants to 78%, were frowned upon across genders, a testament to women themselves being co-opted by patriarchy. Acceptable to 94%, only a sari/salwar-kameez was considered appropriate in public. Preference for modest attire might reflect preoccupations with izzat (honour) and fear of honour-related violence. Such attitudes may also indicate support for the idea that women dressed “inappropriately" somehow deserve shame or assault. Urban dwellers are more accepting of pants and skirts—by almost 20 and 10 percentage points (as compared to rural dwellers), respectively. This is likely owing to increased exposure, and is only a relative improvement.

Disturbing commonalities: City dwellers’ openness does not translate into gender-equitable attitudes. When asked whether “women should tolerate eve-teasing as a normal part of life," about 25% agreed, while another 25% chose neutral/non-responses. Urban dwellers were, in fact, slightly more likely than rural Indians to normalize sexual harassment. Despite perceptions that wealthier/more educated Indians are more egalitarian, sexual harassment is accepted or tolerated by about half of Indians across gender, income and most education groups.

Attitudes towards violence: India’s attitudes towards women reflect apathy and an acceptance of sexual harassment. The tendency to judge and police what women wear is inseparable from the normalization of sexual harassment: both reflect a broader pattern of social control over women’s bodies. We explore this further through responses to the statement: “A husband has the right to discipline his wife." Similar trends emerge. Across India, only about a fifth of respondents disagreed with the statement; 60.6% said they slightly or strongly agreed. Women, again, appear to reinforce patriarchal norms. Perhaps, some women are reluctant to voice their views, while others might endorse the status quo. Either way, prospects for gender equality seem grim.

Across income and education, men felt entitled to control women’s bodies, a tendency which extends to domestic violence, with over 20% of men surveyed admitting to raising a hand against their wives. Education and income, again, do not clearly mitigate this tendency.

The flip side is evident through responses to the statement “women should be protected by men," supported by just under 80% of men and women. While perhaps coloured by the impression that women aren’t safe, benevolent sexism is still sexism. In fact, women aren’t safe due to a broad belief that society can police women’s clothing, harass them, and control their bodies. Social control over women is complex, extending from what they wear, to their presence in public spaces, to private behaviour, often reinforced by women themselves, and justified by concepts ranging from “honour" to “womanly" behaviour.

What, if anything, can be done to ensure women’s safety? Across India, 20% of people placed the onus primarily on women. Thus, honour-related violence is socially recognized—ironically, by reinforcing the importance of “honour" rather than by stopping perpetrators’ violence. Though many respondents agreed sons should be raised to respect women, about 60% did not identify men’s behaviour as the root cause of gender-based violence.

The police were held most responsible for ensuring women’s safety. They undoubtedly have an important role to play; and could do a better job. However, a better solution may be to target gender norms that lead to such behaviour in the first place. Education can be powerful, in schools, families and society at large. Gender-sensitization efforts need to be expansive, targeting children and adults. Engaging young boys and challenging assumptions about “what it means to be a man" is key. While such initiatives exist, there is a long way to go, as the onus for women’s safety is evidently still put on women themselves.

Preventing sexual violence requires dismantling gender constructs that sustain and normalize gender-based violence. Only then can we redefine social norms conducive to a more gender equitable and less violent society.

Ragini Saira Malhotra and Anirudh Kanisetti are, respectively, programme director at Lok Foundation, and research associate at Takshashila Institution.

Data is partially drawn from joint Lok Foundation-Oxford large-scale, all-India surveys.

Comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com

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