* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
India, a country best-known for its rising economic might, is the worst place to be a woman.
On Sunday, 25 July 2016, an Israeli woman was gang raped in Manali, India.
The incident is a gruesome reminder of the uncomfortable truth that India is not prepared to deal with the deluge of crimes perpetrated against women daily - a woman is raped every 22 minutes.
Consider this. Reports emerged this month that a young woman was gang-raped by the same men who had raped her three years earlier in Rohtak, Haryana in North India. Frankly law enforcement authorities should be ashamed of themselves. That the criminals were free all along and had the temerity to repeat the crime on the same victim can only point to the abysmal failure by Indian law enforcers to deal with rape crimes.
Clearly, the attackers’ decision to track the victim and repeat the crime was meant to thumb their noses at her family and authorities, fully aware that they would get away with it again.
There have been other equally disturbing cases. A mother and daughter in Keralawhose complaints of stalking were disregarded by police until the daughter was raped, mutilated and murdered. Or the father whose pleas for investigation into his teenage daughters’ disappearance were ignored by police only for the girls to be found hanging from trees after being gang-raped.
Women in India have been let down by the very institutions that should protect them against crimes like rape, and it is not surprising that that the country is now known as the rape capital of the world.
Despite societal outrage and widespread media spotlight on the crimes, law-enforcement institutions have been slow to act, and at times lethargic. When will the state machinery wake up? What more needs to happen before the police react to crimes against women promptly?
To the credit of the authorities, significant steps have been made in reviewing outmoded laws regarding violence against women. However, these statutes must be accompanied by the will and resources for implementation on the ground. While legal reforms must be upheld, especially to speed up and assure prosecution of offenders, even more urgent is to change the attitude of Indian men towards women.
From a Trotsky perspective ‘the police is after all a copy of society and suffers from all its diseases’. The patriarchal, misogynistic Indian culture invariably condones, covertly or explicitly, violent acts like rape. Then there is the legacy question of class - the law and society favour the wealthy over the poor. Victims from lower castes and poor backgrounds are routinely threatened by families and allies of the accused from higher castes.
In fact, the victim in the most recent case in Rohtak was forced to move after the first attack due to threats and pressure ostensibly because of her status as a Dalit (lower caste). The victim in Kerala was also of a lower caste. Numerous victims have reported that if the family of the accused is of a higher caste or is wealthy, police go out of their way to avoid filing a First Information Report (FIR) which compels them to investigate.
Where a woman, against many odds, manages to file a complaint of rape or harassment, the law enforcement machinery is often shockingly apathetic towards the victim and her family, often displaying a unique eagerness to protect the accused and to disbelieve the victim. When they are not being discouraged, they suffer a double miscarriage of justice by being held somehow responsible for the rape. This cannot be allowed to go on.
India’s police is in urgent need for radical reform. The police must hire more women and ensure that female officers are present during reporting of rape crimes, samples are properly collected, kits secured and cases filed and investigated promptly. Assurance of speedy trials and prosecutions will deter criminals more than the harshest punishments that are never meted out.
Currently, because of low arrest and conviction rates, lack of confidentiality and fear they won’t be believed, only a tiny percentage of women report rape to the police.
Even with sensitivity training for the police force, there will still be need for engaging the wider community for civic policing. Resourceful individuals such as military veterans could be co-opted in this campaign, as they are respected by communities. These veterans or ex-servicemen, acting as citizen wardens, can be a powerful deterrent and role models.
The journey towards changing social attitudes, increasing the probability of punishment, improving reporting and taking better preventive measures will be a long one, but it is one that must be undertaken with urgency. For starters, from an early age, boys must be taught to desist from behaviour that objectify women, irrespective of their social standing. This must become mandatory learning in schools and communities.
A country whose women are oppressed is unlikely to progress. If India wants to be the next global economic power, the equality, dignity and safety of all women must be at the very top of its national priorities.
Siddharth Chatterjee is Kenya representative for the United Nations Population Fund. These are his personal views.