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Photo: iStock

Opinion | The menace of sexual assault need not stalk society forever

The easier we make it for victims to break their silence on sexual harassment, the faster will we be able to deal with rape

The National Crime Records Bureau reports a rape rate of 2 per 100,000 people in India. The figure for the US is 27, and for Sweden, it is 64. It is well known that India’s low figure is not because of the low incidence of rape, but its huge under-reporting. When a rape victim decides to remain silent, the perpetrator is left off the hook. He remains anonymous and anonymity lets him commit further crimes.

The famous psychologist Philip Zimbardo, in his book The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, explained the concept of de- individuation. According to this, anything or any situation that makes people feel anonymous reduces their sense of potential accountability, thereby creating the potential for evil action. Anonymity can be conferred on others not only with physical objects such as masks, but also by the way people are treated in a situation. In most cases of sexual violence, the perpetrator is someone known to the victim. However, despite the knowledge of who the perpetrator is, the victim decides to remain silent about the incident and does not report it to the authorities. Why does the victim keep silent about this heinous crime?

Several societies, including India, put a lot of emphasis on women’s virginity. A girl who is raped is seen as someone who has lost hers. There is a social fear that if the news of her rape is known to the outside world, the victim’s marriage prospects are doomed. However, the rapist doesn’t face any such value decline in the marriage market. In some settings, he is even condoned for his crime. The negative impact in the marriage market makes many a girl and her family keep quiet about rape.

Even if the victim speaks up, the perpetrator often expects to turn the tables on her by telling everyone that it happened because the girl tempted him—say, with her attire. Suddenly the perpetrator becomes the “victim" and the real victim becomes the bad girl who tempted this “hapless" guy. Even the law enforcement authorities are willing to believe such stories, unfortunately.

More than 93% of rapes in India are acquaintance rapes—rapes by people known to the victims. Many a time, the rapist occupies a respectable position within the family or society. That position of respectability can turn out to be the biggest protection for the rapist. Even if the victim speaks up, it could be very difficult to make even close relatives or law enforcement authorities believe that such a respectable person committed such a shocking crime. So many victims think several times before complaining against such rapists.

Even if the victim manages to convince close relatives of the assault, the tendency of the family may be to keep the incident under wraps. Lame excuses such as protecting the honour of the family are used to make sure that the outside world, more so the law enforcement authorities, do not get to hear of the crime.

It is not easy for the rape victim to file a complaint with law enforcement authorities. Many of these authorities have no empathy for the emotional turmoil the victim has undergone. Even in a court of law, in the name of cross examination, the victim is sometimes forced to relive the emotional turmoil of rape several times over. A recent instance of defence lawyers laughing while the victim was giving her testimony highlights the insensitivity of authorities to the plight of a rape victim.

The perpetrator of a rape begins his sexual harassment journey at a young age. In his book, Evil Men, James Dawes gets into the minds of Japanese soldiers who participated in the Nanking Massacre, one of the worst episodes of rape and violence in history. He emphasizes that the capacity for genocidal violence involves cultural training that starts young. Similarly, a person who violates the rights of a woman usually begins his abominable journey at a young age with small acts of sexual violence. The silence of the victim gives the perpetrator the confidence that there will no consequences for what he does. With silence from the next victim, the perpetrator feels even more emboldened to commit further acts of crime.

To put an end to the problem of rape, we need to break the shackles that keep a victim of sexual violence silent. As Deepa Narayan, the author of the book, Chup: Breaking The Silence About India’s Women, says, “Indian women will have to retrain themselves to speak up in a culture that defines a good woman as a silent woman."

To deal with the problem of sexual harassment, small children are taught to shout a loud “No" as soon as they experience a bad touch. Similarly, as soon as a girl experiences even the slightest instance of sexual harassment, she should make her objection loud and clear. As perpetrators of sexual violence see and hear these protests from victims, they will get clear signals that women are no longer going to suffer in silence. Perpetrators will realize that they will not go scot-free.

The government should take steps to make it easy to file sexual molestation cases. Every police station should have trained police personnel— ideally women officers—to record the statements of victims. All legal procedures should be conducted on camera, so that the victim’s privacy is protected. Governments should create a complementary system of independent sexual violence advisors (ISVAs) to support the police system. The easier we make it for victims to break the silence that surrounds sexual harassment, the faster will we be able to deal with the problem of rape.

Biju Dominic is the chief executive officer of Final Mile Consulting, a behaviour architecture firm

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