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Mumbai gangrape: 5 steps to make India safer for women

The only thing that's startling is the surprise: the truth about the horrific gang-rape of a Mumbai journalist is that something similar is happening. all the time, though it mostly doesn't make the headlines. Earlier this month, a pregnant 20 year old woman was gang-raped in front of her husband inside the public library in Maharashtra's Chhota Gondia. A thirteen year old was gang-raped in Kalyan; three sisters were kidnapped and gang-raped near Bhandara. These aren't even couting the sexual assaults which never go reported, walled away by shame or hidden inside our homes.

Each crime, when it hits national television, provokes outrage - but when that's spent, nothing changes. This is partly because there's almost no serious debate on the nuts-and-bolts of policing. Following last year's rape-murder of a Delhi student, the Justice JS Verma Committee came up with a magisterial disquisition on legal and constitutional reform - but its recommendations on actually making streets safer were of zero utility.

There are things our police forces and criminal justice agencies can do - and ought to begin doing today.

First, we need to map sexual violence. This is essential so that the right kinds of criminal justice and urban planning capacities can be developed and deployed.  The truth is that we just don't know enough about who the victims of sexual violence or the perpetrators are. We don't know where sexual violence happens.  There is a very simple reason for this. In country after country, there's evidence to show only a tiny percentage of sexual assault is actually reported to police.  In the United States, authorities use sophisticated polling tools like the National Crime Victimisation Survey - which is, parenthetically, showing a stunning decadal decline in rape which makes clear the problem can be fought.

Second, we need to lose our assumptions. The bits of data we do have suggest every media stereotype about rape is flat-out wrong.

Representational image. AFP.

Representational image. AFP.

First, rape isn't always a crime carried out by strangers. In 2012, the National Crime Records Bureau states, 24,923 rape cases were registered across India-and in 24,470 of those cases, the perpetrator was known to the victim.  Then, the idea that certain regional cultures are more rape-prone isn't very robust.  Tamil Nadu has a very low incidence of rape -- 2.18 per 100,000 women in 2012 -- but Uttar Pradesh was even better, with 2.02, and Bihar registered 1.83. Haryana was bad, with 5.60 -- but Kerala worse, with 5.71. This also gives the lie to claims by chauvinists from Raj Thackeray to Syed Ali Shah Geelani that rape is a crime of culturally-depraved Hindi-belt migrants.

It is also interesting to note that the highest population -- adjusted incidence of rape is in north-east states where women are reputed to enjoy relatively high levels of personal freedoms and status: Mizoram ranks highest, with a rape rate of 20.81  followed by Tripura with 12.77, and Meghalaya with 12.46 and Assam with 11.34.  This tells us that high rape statistics probably reflect the confidence of women to report crimes -not the incidence itself.

Third, we need to get serious about investigation, prosecutions and trials. For all the talk about fast-track courts and harsh laws, India isn't doing so well on securing victims of sexual violence-and other crimes against women-justice.  The National Crime Records Bureau's latest data shows a depressing pattern of mounting numbers of cases clogged in the court system. The conviction rate is awful: of 14,717 cases in which trials concluded in 2012, just 3,563 ended in a conviction. This is pretty much true of all kinds of crimes: there's now a staggering pile-up of 7,017,397 cases pending investigation nationwide The fact our police forces aren't good enough at criminal investigation, nor our prosecutors at getting judges to accept their arguments. It's been argued time and again that we need more women police officers, and officers sensitive to women's rights. These are both good things-but won't fix the problem. More women police officers, as things stand, will only mean more incompetent investigators who happen to be women. It's also important to combat biases inside the police, just as it is within society as a whole. The point about training and capacity, though, is that it teaches police to do their job whatever their personal biases might be.

The key thing here is that a police force can't just be good at investigating crimes against women; either it has capacities to do so across the board, for all kinds of crime, or will make a mess of everything, which is what is happening now. For decades, police management has been asking for better resources and training. It's time for us to start telling our politicians we expect them to provide these.

Fourth, we probably need more police on the streets - but that won't be enough India's supposed to have 1,702,209 police personnel serving it, well short of the United Nations-recommended base-line of 250 per 100,000 population - but for all the talk of beefing up manpower since 26/11, it's still got only 1,298,944 on the rolls, about half what's needed.

The bottom line is that there just aren't enough personnel to do the kinds of things that need to be done to make the streets safer, like proper beat patrolling. The deficits are even more awful when one takes a granular look at them: Maharashtra's 185,667 civil and armed police serve a estimated mid-2012 population of 114,697,000. Technology, like more closed-circuit camera surveillance and forensics, can help. But there aren't enough skilled human resources available. Remember, Maharashtra pays its cops-on-the-beat the same as the lowest grade of unskilled municipal employees and they're not entitled to overtime.

Fifth, it's not just about police: we need a whole-of-government to combat sexual violence.  For years now, it's been argued that streets can become safer by hiring more officers and cracking down on minor criminal acts, thus preventing low-grade perpetrators from graduating to more serious offences.  The proposition rests on the so-called "Broken Windows" model, popularised by New York's former mayor, Rudy Giuliani. There's probably some truth to this, but there's a growing mass of expert literature that suggests the reality is far more complex. It's been noted, for example, that crime rates have also fallen in cities which didn't use Giuliani's aggressive policing strategies. In India, we just don't have enough data to make intelligent public policy choices on these questions. It's entirely possible, for example, that having later closing hours for shops and restaurants may make streets safer; police officers sometimes speculate that crowds on the streets are the real reason why Mumbai is safer for women than New Delhi, with it's swathes of deserted high-speed roads.

It's almost certainly foolish to imagine these measures will end rape: they won't.  In a thoughtful commentary, Jonathan Kay has noted that sexual violence isn't driven by any one thing. "Is rape sex" he asks? "Yes. Is it violence? Yes. A criminal pathology, a product of booze and incapacity, perversion, sadism, an expression of dominance, a bonding agent for mobs, a means for dumb men to climb within hierarchies of other dumb men? Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes and yes. Rape can be any twisted combination of those things, which is why the crime is so tragically common, and so difficult to eradicate."

Diana Scully and Joseph Marrola, in a path-breaking 1984 study based on interviews of 114 convicted offenders, came to much the same conclusion: the men they interviewed said they'd raped for everything from feelings of sexual inadequacy to, bizarre as it might sound, for fun.

Instead of outraging about why rape happens, it's time to start thinking pragmatically about the many things we can do to make sure it happens less often-and that when it does, the perpetrators are punished.