In India, a 'Blame the Victim' Mentality

(February 29, 2012)

In India, a 'Blame the Victim' Mentality

NEW DELHI — When the West Bengal sports minister, Madan Mitra, offered his opinion of the character of a woman who was raped after leaving a Kolkata nightclub, he joined a long line of Indian officials who appear happy to blame the victim. 
“She has two children, and so far as I know, she is separated from her husband,” Mr. Mitra said on a national television show. “What was she doing at a nightclub so late at night?” 
The woman had reported being raped in a moving car by a group of men, two of whom she had met at the nightclub. Over the next week, the news media would excoriate Mr. Mitra, the West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee and the police for their apparent willingness to discredit her. The men in the Kolkata case have since been arrested. 
But Mr. Mitra’s willingness to suggest that the woman’s presence at a nightclub was in some way an invitation to rape, or Ms. Banerjee’s initial insistence that the victim’s story was a “fabrication,” was hardly new. In 2011, the chief of the Delhi police, B.K. Gupta, suggested that women should take their “brother or driver” along if they wanted to be out late at night. 
Also last year, Dinesh Reddy, director general of the police in the state of Andhra Pradesh, said: “Fashionable dresses worn by women, even in rural areas, are among the factors leading to an increase in rape cases. The police have no control over this matter.” 
The Karnataka state minister for women and child welfare, C.C. Patil, had expressed similar views, suggesting that women who work in information technology firms and call centers “ought to know how much skin to cover when leaving such workplaces.” (Mr. Patil recently resigned after he and some colleagues were discovered watching pornography on their cellphones during a session of the state legislative assembly.) 
“If the woman victim can be held responsible for her dress or the late hours at which she is out, it is easier for officials to say that rape happens to women of bad character and loose morals,” said a female police officer in Delhi who asked not to be identified because she could be suspended for criticizing her department. “But that is not the reality of rape in India. Poor women are at the greatest risk of being raped. Also, most rapists are known to the victim. Dress and character have nothing to do with it.” 
Data from the National Crime Records Bureau on crimes against women for 2010 record that victims knew their attackers in 97.3 percent of reported rapes. 
Even accepting that the bureau defines “known to the victim” in the broadest sense, to include remote acquaintances, the figures are revealing. Parents and other close family members were involved in 1.3 percent of the cases, other relatives were involved in 6.2 percent and neighbors in 36.2 percent. As many Indian women are aware, home and neighborhood are by no means safe spaces. 
For women in the state of Madhya Pradesh, caste is a far more significant factor than what clothes they wear. According to figures cited in the state assembly, 1,217 gang rapes were reported between 2003 and 2007. About 672 of the victims were from the disadvantaged Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, reflecting a statewide pattern of violence directed by upper castes against lower castes. 
For women from the Dalit, formerly “untouchable,” community, sexual violence is often an inescapable part of their lives. In a 2006 survey of 500 Dalit women in four states, 116 of the women surveyed said they had been raped; an additional 234 had experienced sexual harassment or assault. In January in Maharashtra, a Dalit widow was stripped, tied to a tree and beaten after her son eloped with an upper-caste girl, by members of the girl’s family. This kind of retributive crime, by the powerful against the weak, is reported in many Indian states. 
A third broad area of risk concerns women in areas beset by insurgency. As far back as 1993, Asia Watch commented on women’s vulnerability: “Women in the custody of security forces are at risk of rape. Rape has also been widely reported during counterinsurgency operations.” 
For instance, human rights advocates have documented numerous cases of sexual violence against women by security forces in Kashmir, Manipur and Chhattisgarh. Convictions are rare. The use of rape to punish women in insurgency-ridden areas is seldom mentioned in more general debates on rape, even though this is one more case of the powerful casting sexual abuse as justified by the victim’s actions or status. 
Last July, a 16-year-old tribal girl, Meena Khalkho, was caught in the cross-fire between the police and what were said to have been Naxalite rebels in Chhattisgarh. Her family says she was visiting friends; the police say she was a Naxalite. The post-mortem report showed signs of rape as well as gunshot wounds. 
An inquiry is still under way. But this month, the state’s home minister, Nankiram Kanwar, said that Ms. Khalkho might have been a Naxalite — a charge her family denies — and explained her injuries by saying the medical report showed that Ms. Khalkho had “habitual sexual contact.” 
“Why wasn’t she home at 2:15 a.m.?” the minister reportedly asked. 

Whether it involves the ordeal of a woman who visited a Kolkata nightclub or the death of a girl in Chhattisgarh, the questions victims of sexual violence face seem to be the same.

A version of this article appeared in print on February 29, 2012, in The International Herald Tribune.

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