Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

Opinion | The frequency illusion that tags India as rape central

The truth is that the entire world has a rape crisis, not just India, and some of the most monstrous assaults that take place in other countries go largely unnoticed

At a Bangkok gathering, a young, blonde traveller was telling me how much she wanted to visit India one day. What’s holding you back? I asked her. She hesitated and then replied: “I don’t know—I guess I’m a little scared by all the rape stories. Will I be safe?"

I couldn’t find words to reassure her. The blunt truth is that, like the rest of the world, I now think of India as a place where horrific rape happens. The part of me that doesn’t want to minimize rape also wants to know how bad it is. Does India have a “rape crisis" as a BBC report headlined it last year?

One way to dig deeper is by interrogating the numbers we use to talk about rape.

For those who believe everything they read, here’s a number to consider: 38,947. It’s the number of rape cases reported in 2016, sourced by the ministry of women and child development. It probably got the numbers from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), which counts first information reports (FIRs) filed in police stations. You could look prematurely relieved here: India’s 2016 population was estimated to be 1.32 billion, of which about 340 million were women between 15 and 49. You might think: 38,947 rapes means about 1 rape per 8,729 women. Not as bad I’d feared.

But there’s something subversive about sheltering behind numbers; they mask the sheer bestiality of a woman being raped repeatedly, having herself assaulted by an iron rod and disembowelled aboard a bus on a winter night by five savage young men. That happened to Nirbhaya in 2012. There can be no “acceptable" number of rapes—but if the world says we have a “rape crisis", then the truth is hidden in the numbers.

More than 40% of South Africa’s women will be raped within their lifetime; only one in nine will report it to the police. In Sweden, one in four women is raped. In the US, 65,668 college-age women are raped annually on average. In the UK and Wales, one in five women are raped every year.

By the numbers, then, South Africa, Sweden, the US, UK and Wales top India on reported rapes. India comes fifth.

Should we pop out the champagne? Actually, no, because most rapes go unreported. Worldwide, it’s about nine in 10.

Next question: How many Indian rapes go unreported?

Not a doozy. How do you count the number of times something didn’t happen? Fortunately, the unit-level data of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) of 2015-16 lets us compare data on actual experiences of crime victims with the NCRB’s record of FIRs. The NFHS estimates that 99.1% of sexual violence cases, including rape, are not reported. If 38,947 is 0.9% of all rapes in India that year, the number of rapes would stand near 4,327,444.

How many of them might have been false reports? Let’s do some simple math and assume that only one in 10 women will report being raped, and that men are 10 times more likely to rape a woman than a woman is likely to make a false accusation. That is, for every woman making a false accusation, one woman will be reporting a real rape: Only half the cases coming to a police station would be real rapes. But that yields a still frightening total of 2,163,722—more than any other country in the world.

The hidden numbers show that India has a giant crisis of unreported rapes, but curiously, the numbers are not why people think of India as rape central. In reality, more Indian women have been reporting rapes since 2012—and their stories have been receiving more airtime. Rape seems to be continuously in the news, even when it is not. In the cognitive sciences, this is called the frequency illusion, the phenomenon in which people who just learn or notice something start seeing it everywhere.

The international press unfortunately seems to love nothing more than another shocking rape story from India; unfortunate because it masks the fact that the world has a rape crisis, not just India. Is it common knowledge that the US has the world’s third highest number of reported rapes?

Here is a good example of how the media selectively highlights stories of rape in India, thus possibly minimizing the crisis elsewhere.

At about midnight, in August 2012, four well-built footballers left a party with a young woman, slightly tipsy from a few drinks, and headed to a friend’s house. During the car ride, the girl’s shirt was removed, while one of the men molested her. The others filmed and photographed the episode.

In the house, the girl was orally raped and sexually assaulted repeatedly by an unknown number of young men. Unconscious now, she was stripped naked, penetrated digitally and urinated upon. A photograph of her, unresponsive, being carried by two boys holding her wrists and ankles from room to room made the rounds the next day.

This monstrous assault took place in Steubenville, Ohio, almost exactly four months before Nirbhaya’s brutal rape made world headlines.

Of course you never heard of it. Most of the world didn’t. They were busy reading about Nirbhaya’s rape.

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