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India rape verdict: A step toward freedom from sexual violence

A guilty verdict in India for four rapists marks the world's slow but steady progress toward ensuring a woman's right to bodily integrity. New studies give hope that societies will see that rape is not a fact of life.

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    Indian passengers riding on a public bus look towards a court complex crowded with media personnel awaiting a verdict in the Dec. 16, 2012, gang rape case in New Delhi.
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Like many countries before it, India took a big step Tuesday toward changing the notion that many women must always fear being raped. A special court in India found four men guilty of the gang rape and murder of a young female student in Delhi last December.

That horrific crime, and now its verdict, set India on a path toward ensuring women have a right to bodily integrity and greater freedom from sexual violence.

The high-profile crime spawned mass protests in India and drove the passage of new laws to better protect women, such as criminalizing the act of stalking and punishing public workers who fail to register a rape complaint. Reporting of rapes has risen, indicating a crack in the social practice of women staying mum about an assault. Police are adding more female officers. Sex crimes are now assigned to special fast-track courts.

More survivors are offered immediate health care. News outlets cover the crime more often. And politicians are on notice to back even tougher measures and to not say, as many do, that those raped have themselves to blame.

The verdict in India came just as the United Nations released a study of rape across six nations in Asia, from Sri Lanka to China. More than 10,000 men, both urban and rural, were asked in confidence if they had raped someone and, if so, why. The results were both startling and hopeful.

Nearly a quarter of the men admitted to raping their partner or someone else. Half of those committed their first rape as teenagers. A majority of them said they suffered no legal consequences.

“The absence of legal sanction is important because it reinforces the socialization that a woman’s body belongs to her husband upon marriage,” states the report. The men who raped gave various motives, such as a desire for entertainment and a sense of entitlement. The study also notes a high rate of emotional abuse among the men in their childhood.

Yet the UN report also hints at potential progress based on an unusually wide variation of reported rapes between countries. In Papua New Guinea, nearly 2 of 3 men admitted to rape. In urban Bangladesh, fewer than 1 in 10 did. This shows rape is not inevitable and can be prevented, says Dr. Emma Fulu of Partners for Prevention, the joint-UN program that coordinated the study.

A new Harvard University study also found a remarkable variation in sexual violence in conflict zones, challenging the idea that rape during wartime is inevitable and common. A country’s gender inequality has little to do with the number of rapes in a war, the study found. Rather it is how rebels are recruited that determines the extent of the crime. (One unusual finding: The rebel group that committed the vast majority of rapes in Sierra Leone’s conflict had the greatest number of female fighters.)

Countries such as India still have far to go to reduce sexual violence – Indian courts have millions of backlogged rape cases, and conviction rates remain low. But since 2008, when the UN Security Council put a focus on preventing rape, a global effort has helped put a spotlight on this issue.

As actress Angelina Jolie, a special UN envoy for refugees, noted last April: “This violence can be prevented, and it must be confronted.”

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