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Delhi rape: Why we are asking the wrong questions

by Praveen Swami  Apr 23, 2013 10:16 IST

#Delhi rape   #InMyOpinion  

Her name wasn't Nirbhaya or Damini or Jagruti, or Amanat, the girl they found lying in the dirt by the side of the road, raped, her legs broken by beatings, her stomach slit, her intestines ripped out.  There’s a reason, though, that Indians should know Anene Boysen’s name.  Boysen was raped and brutally murdered just six weeks after the 23-year old Delhi physiotherapist we’ve come to imagine we knew well. From their stories, similar only the ways they were killed, we should learn this: this is happening to women everywhere, all of the time.

Delhi residents have been protesting the gruesome rape of a five year old child that has brought back memories of the tragedy in December.  In the months in between, though, plenty of evidence has emerged that the problem has little to do with either Delhi’s awful police, or its awful buses. There was the teenager who was raped on a Glasgow public transport bus full of passengers, none of whom even called the police.  There was the teenager who was gang-raped in her New York classroom. There was the American tourist in Brazil, gang-raped in a minivan.

It’s important to know all these stories because they offer us an important lesson: even in systems far better resourced than our own, no-one’s found a magic sliver of arrows to kill this crime.

The protest in front of the PM's house. Naresh Sharma/Firstpost

The protest in front of the PM's house. Naresh Sharma/Firstpost

Ever since the December 30 rape-murder, ever-greater numbers of women have been reporting sexual violence: 463 rape cases were registered by police from January 1 to April 15, up 158 percent over last year, while sexual harassment complaints have gone up by over 600 percent. This is the good news.  The bad news is that very, very few of these women will receive something resembling justice. From the latest National Crime Records Bureau data available, we know 4,072 of 14,423 rape trials which concluded in 2011 ended in a conviction. Three in four women will, more likely than not, see the men they identified as rapists walk free.

Read the crime statistics recorded by the NCRB in 2011 here. 

Part of the reason for this, in India, is the appalling quality of investigation. Delhi’s forensics lab, among the best-funded in India, has been slammed by judges for shoddy work and delays; there is no dedicated special investigations unit for anything, let alone rape; the government’s own Bureau of Police Research has admitted that police training colleges are dysfunctional.

There are lots of reason we’re entitled to expect much better from our police. There are also reasons, though, that even the best policing won’t make women that much safer.

For one, rape isn't a crime that mainly happens out on the streets—though the media meme involving call-centre employees might lead you to believe otherwise. The most unsafe places for women in India is home: 93 percent  of rapes reported to authorities in 2011 involved perpetrators known to the victim, including immediate family, relatives and neighbours. Proving guilt beyond reasonable doubt is difficult. This is true everywhere—and the reason why the United Kingdom secured just 1,058 convictions in the 14,767 rapes reported in 2011-2012.  In the United States, just 3 in 100 rapists see the inside of a jail.

Even the best investigation, moreover, can only help so much. Elisa Bergslien, an expert at Buffalo state university, has noted that “on television, virtually all of the crime scenes investigated are replete with significant physical evidence, all of which is quickly collected and then analysed with a barrage of real and fictional scientific instruments”.  In general, pop-police accounts suggest “a level of certainty that is often impossibly high in real-world cases”.  Increasingly, moreover, criminals have become adept at dodging forensic investigators. Last year, a Mumbai rapist forced his victim to shower and wiped his fingerprints from the crime scene.

It’s been argued—based in part on the work of Freakonomics author Steven Levitt—that simply having more police may help. Levitt proposed in a 1997 paper that enhanced numbers of officers, among other things, led to a remarkable decline in US crime rates in the 1990s—including rape.

There’s no doubt that India is short of police. In 2011, the country had 1,281,317 police personnel on its rolls, against the 1,660,953 sanctioned, or the 250:100,000 population United Nations norms mandate as an acceptable level—a quite staggering deficit.  Having more police, though, might not achieve all much.  In 2003, Delhi had 45,041 officers on its rolls.

Now, it’s got 66,686 officers.  This is a very substantial increase, edging the numbers up close to the sanctioned strength of 69,805. However, the increase in violent crime cases has been just as dramatic—from 3,449 in 2003 to 6,193 in 2011. Delhi’s rate of violent crime, the number per 100,000 population, rose from was 23 to 37.1.  Put simply, extra police aren't deterring extra.

Elsewhere, with less police, there’s much more deterrence. The rate of violent crime in Andhra Pradesh in 2003, though, was 14.9.  Now, it is 15.8.  No big change here, even though the state had 69,687 officers at the end of last year, very similar to the 61,363 it had in 2003.

Leaving aside the empirical Indian evidence, Levitt’s thesis have also been challenged by a swathe of recent work—notably, Ben Bradford’s review of 13 recent studies, which suggested that while police numbers did lead to a falling-off of crimes against property, “evidence of an association between police numbers and violent crime is weaker and sometimes contradictory”.

So what should we do? For one, perhaps we need to stop pretending that sexual violence is an alien epidemic that has hit us from nowhere.  In 2006, police forces across the country reported 19,348 cases, rising to 20,737 in 2007, 21,467 in 2008, 21,937 in 2009, 22,172 in 2010 and 24,206 in 2011—in other words, at 2 percent or less each year.  This is exactly the kind of growth criminologists would expect as population increases. Murders actually grew more quickly, at about 2.8 percent each year during this period.  Some crimes, like burglary, grew faster than 5 percent.

Even though each such crime shocks, this is mainly so because we choose not to recognise how pervasive rape actually is—even child rapes of the kind that has angered Delhi. In 2011, children made up about a third of all rape victims, 7211 in all;  they are far more likely to be raped than suffer any other kind of violent crime.

It’s also important to understand that rape isn’t an Indian problem, any more than its an anywhere-else-in-particular problem. United Nations figures show that 1.8 in every 100,000 Indian women is a victim of rape. The figure for Ireland is 10.7, Norway, 19.2, and the United States 27.3. India’s rape numbers are low because of under-reporting, but the real figure is probably not too dissimilar.

Ever since the 1970s, there has been a rich debate among social scientists and evolutionary biologists on why men rape. Feminists have long argued sexual violence is an inexorable outcome of patriarchy.   Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer’s A Natural History of Rape, argued that “rape not only appears to occur in all known cultures, but in a wide variety of other species where there is certainly no cultural encouragement of such behaviour”.  The shared pessimism of these very different perspectives should caution us against easy sloganeering.

The questions we need to be asking, and aren’t, are these: how many police officers do we need to investigate rape properly, and how should we train them? which measures will best secure public spaces for women? what pedagogical interventions are needed in schools and colleges to inculcate greater respect for women?

Facing up to the fact that sexual violence is an everyday part of our lives—embedded in our culture, and perhaps even in our genes—is a necessary precondition for meaningful policy interventions. There’s no doubt the government deserves blame for allowing violence against women to flourish. Public discourse focussed only on its failings, though, has worked to keep the spotlight off toxic aspects of our culture—and off men themselves. Keeping on outraging might make us feel a bit better about ourselves, but it won’t stop one, single rape.