India’s Rape Epidemic Reflects a Deeper, Darker Problem

India is defined by misogyny. Hatred of women is woven so tightly into the fabric of Indian society, according to writer Pubali R. Chaudhuri, that any Indian who denies it is lying.

The most recent example is the horrific gang rape and murder of a student on a bus in New Delhi. But it is no anomaly. “National crime records show that 228,650 of the total 256,329 violent crimes recorded last year were against women.” That’s 89% of all the violent crimes in India, and women tend to be blamed and even punished when they are raped — witness the young victim who was told by police to marry the man who raped her.

Sexism begins at conception with parents’ preference for male children, especially if their first child was a girl. Indians abort 300,000-600,000 female fetuses annually, creating a shortfall of 7.1 million females nationwide. Chaudhuri reports that Indians “utter prayers, make vows, observe fasts, bow before this or that divinity,” all with the goal of begetting boys, not girls.

Girls suffer for the sake of their brothers. Boys tend to get more food, a better education, and more of the family estate, Chaudhuri writes. Eventually a girl becomes, practically speaking, the property of her husband and in-laws.

A few years back, by happenstance and Oprah’s book club, I read a string of books by and about Indian women. I found the female characters’ day-to-day lives so disturbing that I had to cut novels about Indian women off my reading list for a long while. Just reading about the rampant misogyny was oppressive.

Not that the United States is proof against systemic sexism and violence against women. I spent many years as a litigator battling company-wide discrimination against women at large employers. In law school I volunteered as an advocate for rape victims. The United States is not innocent, and I do not claim to know all the answers for either my country or for India. But I feel entirely justified identifying and calling out the problems in other nations as well as my own. Worldwide violence against women is so overwhelmingly common that it is everyone’s responsibility to call it out and work against it.

As Sabina Dewan writes, last month’s gang rape “is a tangible chance” for “governments around the world…multinational corporations, and international development and human rights organizations” to “advocate for stronger policies to protect women from violence, harassment, and discrimination.” She argues that countries that improve their treatment of women will enjoy burgeoning economies and higher labor productivity.

Sonia Faleiro identifies one concrete prerequisite to ending India’s sexual inequality: a vast improvement in the criminal prosecution of rapists. “Of the more than 600 rape cases reported in Delhi in 2012, only one led to a conviction,” she reports.†The “police must document reports of rape and sexual assault, and investigations and court cases have to be fast-tracked and not left to linger for years…If victims believe they will receive justice, they will be more willing to speak up. If potential rapists fear the consequences of their actions, they will not pluck women off the streets with impunity.”

A broader prerequisite to the improvement Dewan calls for is abolishing India’s obsession with female sexual purity. “A culture in which women are expected to remain virgins until marriage is a rape culture. In that vision, womenís bodies are for use primarily for procreation or male pleasure. They must be kept pure,” writes E.J. Graff at The American Prospect.†India “is a culture that believes that the worst aspect of rape is the defilement of the victim, who will no longer be able to find a man to marry her ó and that the solution is to marry the rapist.”†Guarding a woman’s purity is her own responsibility; she must pay the price for any failure.

More complicated but at least as necessary is a shift from viewing women as men’s property to understanding them as independent beings with as much potential as males. As Graff writes, the kind of “endemic street harassment” found in India “is not about sex; itís about threatening women for daring to leave the private sphere. Itís a form of control over womenís ambitions and lives. And when such a culture is widespread, it gives men permission to use women as the target for any excess anger they might have.” Faleiro described in The New York Times the terror women face when commuting between their homes and their universities or jobs. She adds that women are not allowed to feel safe in private spaces either.

India has a long history of treating women as property, perhaps longer than Americans can fully appreciate. One old manifestation, called sati, is the tradition of wives being burned alive on their husbands’ funeral pyres, which some Hindus still observe. Another phenomenon is dowry killings: if grooms’ families demand more money than the bride’s dowry and her family fails to satisfy the demand, the in-laws douse the new bride with paraffin and burn her to death. One woman died this way every 90 minutes in India in 2010.

At every stage of life, Indian women have belonged to men — fathers, husbands, brothers. People do not part easily with property, and men will not acquiesce to their loss of superior status any time soon.†But last month’s rape seems to have catalyzed a new fierceness in Indian women’s drive for equality. International support can help them keep it going for the long haul.


Related Stories:

Gang Rapes Incite Debate Over Women’s Safety in India

What the International Community Can Do to Support the Protest Against the Delhi Gang Rape

In India, Women Raped For Leaving The Home



Karen Ryan
Karen Ryan3 years ago

Has there been any people in India convicted of murder for those dowry killings?

Hannah Scrivener
Hannah Scrivener4 years ago

Barbaric, pure and simple.

Ken H.
Ken H4 years ago

@ Reynaldo D............Although having less woman to men can be a problem to have a family,i dont see how it would directly relate to a normal guy to decide to brutally rape a woman.The problem in that country and countries like it, [not to mention every country is to some degree still treating woman as a 2nd class human beings] is that woman overall are seen as lesser humans,something to own and that is where the real trouble starts,its also why you have less woman because they are killed at birth for just that reason.So i wont buy your direct link that men rape woman because theres less of them....any guy that in need could go to a brothel or similar place to get sex.......thats not to say there isn't woman in those places that are being forced to work there,but thats another problem to deal with.I also dont think we need more people,to cont. how we do business/families etc we will need another Earth to support it all....we need to down size and conduct business different... business that the planet can hold environmentally and responsibly.

Reynaldo Duarte
Reynaldo Duarte4 years ago

comment part 4
Sorry my comment is so long here, but I have analyzed this situation all of my adult life. I have bounced around in many different North American cities and foreign countries as well. I can see one possible good that can come of Asia’s woman shortage. They are simply going to have to rethink their attitude towards women. Now that both India and China are reporting massive women shortages, their populations are headed for massive drops. That is now inevitable. There are simply not many women over there to birth the next generations. As countries, they are simply going to have to rethink their attitudes towards women. Hopefully, their national leaders will have the sense enough to do that. With birth rates in many countries having dropped below the point of enough babies being born to maintain their populations at the minimum critical population density enough that their economies will still function for the foreseeable future, it is time to rethink a lot of things. No longer can governments take people for granted. Especially so can they no longer take for granted that there will be enough people to continue to build up their societies in the future.

Reynaldo Duarte
Reynaldo Duarte4 years ago

comment part 3
The job hotspot cities will always have more men than women. The cities where women tend to be more numerous have quite few jobs. Where women tend to be rare is a dangerous situation for women.
The solution to these problems are simple, societies (as in the ones that want to be healthy and growing societies) need to encourage more female births. A country can much more easily deal with the odd desperately seeking Susans, than they can with legions of desperately seeking Samuels. Another important point to make here is that women don’t tend to get violent over who is going to get with a man, like sexually frustrated men will get violent. For that reason alone, there really is safety in numbers for you women. If there are plenty of women to go around to all the men, they will be a more docile lot. When meeting woman so that a man can fulfill his physical need for such companionship becomes just about impossible, like it has in India, what happened to that girl on that bus is a perfect example of what happens in such a society where women have become rare. It is a lot easier to attract men to move to a country in order to alleviate a man shortage than it is to attract women to a country to alleviate a woman shortage.

Reynaldo Duarte
Reynaldo Duarte4 years ago

comment part 2
That gets old, sooner or later. I have lived in cities where there are many more men than women. They are not happy environments. When I was living in Phoenix, AZ (a US city where there were plenty of jobs to be had, but a lot more men than women living there) one could easily see the frustration in the faces of all the men. I also have been to New York City, a place with 1,000,000 more women than men. The lousy job market chased away all the men.
This leads to a very important point I must make about the difference between how a mans mind works, versus a womans mind. Us men will abandon family if it really comes down to a matter of survival. I was with a woman in New York that I wanted to marry and start a family with her. During the early 1990’s, there was simply nothing in the job market in New York, not even a job to be had in a Burger King restaurant! She and her family made it clear to me that they would abandon me on the street if I did not find work. I found work in Chicago. My ex-fiance would NOT move, what was I to do? I had to abandon them, before they would abandon me. That is why I have never been a father. Now that I am in my mid 40’s I don’t want to be a father, pure and simple. The point is this, in the United States, men my age and younger often must choose between easily encountered work or easily encountered women. The job hotspot cities will always have more men than women. The cities where women tend to be more numerous hav

Reynaldo Duarte
Reynaldo Duarte4 years ago

Thank you for this informative article. I have been writing a book on the call center industry of India and its neighboring countries. This is very helpful. I would like to add another reason I believe has something to do with the rape problems in India. Women are becoming rare in India. As this article states, a shortfall of women (more than 7,000,000) all over India. That is absolutely not a sign of a healthy and growing society. That is also a recipe for disaster. One fact and reality that needs to be faced is that any society will always have a gender imbalance. There will always be more of one sex than the other anywhere in the world. A society that wants to be a healthy and growing society will always want more women than men. There are many reasons for this. First of all, having enough woment to go around to all the horny men in that country. India simply does not have enough of them. It is a sad but true fact. When it is nearly impossible for many men to ever have the opportunity to encounter a single, un-attached, interested and looking woman, that is going to lead to a lot of frustration among the male segment of a societies population. That is all there is to it. For us men, hearing the same old thing everytime that he meets a woman he thinks might be the one for him, and then hearing "You are a nice guy and I would like to go with you, but I already have a boy friend" or husband, or some such thing. That gets old, sooner or later. I have lived in cities where ther

Melanie B.
Melanie Beuken4 years ago

Debbie Bush
Debbie Bush4 years ago

After all the hard work through all these centuries, this is what women have gained. What world did I bring my children into? I am appalled. I know all i can do is protect my own and do what I can to help like here on care 2. But still how awful.

Beverly M.
Past Member 5 years ago

The world will never completely evolve until this ends