On 26 October 2013, a 16-year-old girl was gang raped in West Bengal. Two months later, the culprits set her on fire to get rid of the ‘evidence’. She succumbed to her injuries soon after. In December 2013, two high-profile cases of alleged sexual harassment -- one against the editor-in-chief of Tehelka magazine, Tarun Tejpal, and another against former Supreme Court judge A.K. Ganguly surfaced. Clearly, these events raise questions about the sincerity of our efforts to stop violence against women.

Women in India are not safe anywhere – at home, the workplace or on the streets. And this is despite the fact that incidents of violence against women regularly make the headlines in Indian newspapers, especially since the brutal gang rape of a 23-year-old student on a moving bus in Delhi in December 2012. Even minors, sometimes as young as four years old, have not been spared by these predators.

As if this is not bad enough, the law enforcement machinery is shockingly apathetic towards victims and their families. For instance, in a dramatic case of role reversal, the police have been known to offer meagre bribes to the families of rape victims for burying the incident. Even some of our elected leaders have gone as far as to publicly blame the victims.

Social perspectives on rape

Society’s attitudes towards rape can be broadly classified into three categories. The first view blames the perpetrator and lists three causes of rape – male sexuality (men cannot control their sexual urges), male pathology (rapists are mentally ill), and male hostility (hatred or dislike of women). Interestingly, while the first two causes hold men responsible for the crime, they shift the responsibility of prevention to the victims. The notion that men cannot control their sexual urges holds women responsible for situations that might incite men -- an act they can prevent. The male pathology view claims that rapists can be identified and hence it is the responsibility of women to be careful of such people. Of course, mere identification does not always help since the victim may not have the ability to protect herself. Male hostility is believed to be a cause for rape situations involving strangers.

The second view differs from male sexuality in a nuanced manner by holding the victim responsible for rape and is labelled “female precipitation". This view has a clear male bias – blaming the victim for creating an environment suitable for rape, like dressing provocatively, drinking with male friends and so on. Causes of rape (male sexuality, male pathology and female precipitation) that put the responsibility for prevention on the victim and exonerate the perpetrator are quite aptly called ‘rape myths’. All three rape myths are present in our society and contribute to the high incidence of rape in India.

The third view holds society responsible for rape and attributes the crime to gender inequality or male dominance. The strength of the male dominance view is clear from the fact that rape is still considered to be a way to punish women and their families. The recent gang rape of a 20-year-old woman ordered by a West Bengal village panchayat highlights the fact that rape is acceptable as a punishment not only by individuals but even by society.

Social and economic factors

There are a number of social and economic forces at work in India that also lead to the high incidence of rape. To start with, a low literacy rate (our literacy rate has improved but is certainly not high) is associated with higher crime rates. Poverty is another serious factor that abets rape in India since it is responsible for the lack of adequate sanitation facilities. The absence of toilets within the house is one of the factors contributing to the large number of rape incidents. Women who are forced to use open fields as toilets in the dark are easy targets for rapists who, being from the same village, know when and where to attack. Social hierarchy plays an important role too, especially in the rape of Dalit and tribal women, who are treated like personal property without any human rights because of their lower social standing.

Moreover, unlike in the West, incidents of date rape or rape by a partner are not reported as rapes in India which is an additional factor contributing to the lower number of reported rapes.

It is our view that in the Indian context, social and economic factors play a more important role in explaining the number of rapes, while the rape myths discussed above provide indirect social approval by directly or indirectly blaming the victim for the rape.

Crime and punishment

A rational criminal weighs the ‘benefits’ of a crime against its associated ‘costs’ – the probability of being caught, the magnitude of punishment, and time taken for conviction. Moreover, our (often corrupt) law enforcement machinery frequently does not pursue a case with enough vigour to even charge a perpetrator (lowering the detection probability), let alone obtain a conviction. This has a feedback effect on social attitudes towards crime -- harsher and faster punishment reduces crime, while a slow legal process has the opposite effect.

Another crucial cost that is often ignored is the social censure that the perpetrator and his family may have to go through. Unfortunately, in India it is the victim and her family that is often subject to social censure. Hence, it is not surprising that a lower proportion of rape incidents are reported. There is no bigger facilitator of rapes than knowing that the likelihood of the rape being reported is low. In that sense the third rape myth where society is held responsible for such dastardly acts is significant in India.

Economic impact

An increase in the reported incidents of rape has two kinds of effects on the economy -- a direct effect and a reputational effect. The direct effect results in an immediate drop in tourism activity in the country. Shortly after the December 2012 gang rape in Delhi, a number of countries warned their female citizens to avoid travel to India, or at least, to some parts of India. A survey conducted by the Social Development Foundation of the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India sometime after the incident found a significant drop in the number of tourists and foreign exchange earnings. This is important because according to the World Travel and Tourism Council, the travel and tourism sector contributed 6.4% ($121 billion approximately) of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in India, either directly or indirectly, and provided employment to 7.9% (39.3 million workers) of the workforce in 2011.

The reputational effect is the effect on the economy that results from a loss of reputation internationally. This not only hurts tourism but also results in a drop in foreign direct investment (Craigwell and Moore 2008, Fereidounia and Al-mulali 2012). Consequently, an increase in rapes will hurt the economy both in the short run and in the long run, and possibly the full impact of these crimes on the economy has not yet been felt.

Time for change

In April 2013, in response to the series of rape crimes and protests, the Supreme Court of India introduced stricter laws on rape with the promise of fast-tracking such cases. However, in practice, we are still lagging far behind; we have been unable to create fear in the minds of rapists and rapes continue to occur with alarming frequency.

What is striking is how unenthusiastically Indian youth have responded to these crimes. Yes, there have been protests, but nothing like what we observed in the wake of Anna Hazare’s protests against corruption. There seems to be no ‘India Against Rape’ to root out this even more terrible crime. While corruption is a crime against the economy, rape is a crime against a whole gender -- against our mothers, wives, daughters and sisters. It is time for change; because once we hit the tipping point (and some believe we already have), reining back becomes extremely difficult. As the economics of crime perspective suggests, draconian laws and fast-track courts will not be enough. We need to change social attitudes, increase the probability of punishment, improve reporting, and take better preventive measures.

India needs to take measures that will increase the cost of the crime. Confidence and trust in the police need to increase. One obvious step is to increase the proportion of women in the police force beyond the existing 5%. Till police stations in India continue to be evaluated on the basis of resolved crimes, there will be little incentive to record first information reports (FIRs). Indeed, in a study conducted in 2011 in Rajasthan, decoys sent to police stations were able to get to the point of recording an FIR only 54% of the time. The names of rape offenders could be recorded in a publicly available database, or provided in print and digital media. Perhaps the National Film Division Corporation can revive its old newsreel format in movie theatres and on television to provide information about such people.

Building toilets in houses should become a part of infrastructure provision by the government. The government should work to improve literacy rates since higher literacy reduces all types of crime. In fact, states with higher literacy rates do have fewer reported rapes. Let us shift the shame and blame to whom it really belongs – the perpetrators of rape. Let us make it easier for women to report rape and live in society on equal terms. Let us not burden the victim with a scarlet letter. Until we can make these changes, corruption may continue to be the bane of India, but these rapes will be the shame of our nation. Indian society, with all its diversity, has to come together to curb rape. Perhaps this is one instance where a forum like ‘India Against Rape’ would be most effective!

Sudipta Sarangi is the Gulf Coast Coca Cola Distinguished Professor of Business Administration in the Department of Economics at Louisiana State University.

Chandan Kumar Jha is a doctoral candidate in Economics at Louisiana State University (LSU)

Published with permission from Ideas for India ( www.ideasforindia.in ), a public policy portal.