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A tourist in India posted a video saying she was gang raped. A national debate ensued

Police escort men accused of allegedly raping a tourist to a district court in Dumka, in India's Jharkhand state, on March 4. The attack took place on March 1; the woman posted a video describing what happened on social media.
AFP via Getty Images
Police escort men accused of allegedly raping a tourist to a district court in Dumka, in India's Jharkhand state, on March 4. The attack took place on March 1; the woman posted a video describing what happened on social media.

Content Warning: The following story describes circumstances surrounding the gang rape of a tourist that took place in India last week.

In early March, news of a rape spread rapidly on social media.

A woman, speaking Spanish, posted a video on Instagram that was later re-posted on X, formerly Twitter. "Something has happened to us that we would not wish on anyone," she said. "Seven men have raped me. They have beaten us and robbed us, although not many things [were stolen] because what they wanted was to rape me."

"We are in the hospital with the police. It happened tonight, here in India." The date was March 1.

The woman's face was covered in bruises.

The husband and wife told the police that they were on a motorcycle trip around the world and had camped overnight in a tent in a remote area when the incident occurred.

News of the rape spread rapidly on social media, triggering debate about the prevalence of sexual violence in India. And some activists who address sexual violence in India say the media attention even hastened arrests in a country where justice for sexual assault victims has often been slow to come – or even non-existent.

On March 4, Jharkhand Director General of Police, Ajay Kumar Singh informed the mediathat all seven suspects had been identified and that four were in custody. The media circulated the video of their arrest and posted it on X.

Statistics about rape in India

In the past few years, other high profile rapes have called attention to the issue of sexual violence in India. And one of this year's Oscar-nominated documentaries. To Kill a Tiger, is about the gang rape of a 13-year-old girl in her village.

After the gang rape this month, an American journalist posted online about the "sexual aggression" he has witnessed on visits to India. His allegation elicited a response from Rekha Sharma, the chairperson of India's National Commission for Women, a government body that advises on issues related to women and also investigates complaints. Sharma wrote on X: "According to data, over 6 million tourists arrive in India every year, many of them are single women, and they holiday safely in India, as India takes the safety of women very seriously, as evidenced by its implementation of stringent laws over time."

What does the data show? Official government statistics do indicate an increase in the reporting of rape cases in recent years. In 2022, India's National Crime Records Bureau cited just over 31,000 cases for a country of 1.3 billion people. In 2005, that number was a little over 18,000.

But by comparison, the U.S. reported 133,294 rapes in 2022 in a population of 331 million – a higher prevalence of sexual violence.

However, activists in India question the official count. They assert that underreporting of rape is common because of the stigma for survivors. According to the 2017 edition of India's National Family Health Survey, four out of five women who have experienced sexual violence never tell anyone about it.

A lot of commenters miss the point, say activists.

"The discussion that we should be having now is not whether India is a rape capital or not, but about what we can do to create a safer environment," says Elsa Marie D'Silva, founder of Red Dot Foundation in Delhi. Her foundation crowdsources information on sexual harassment and abuse in public spaces. Its Safecity reporting platform, available both online and as an app, allows women to make anonymous reports of sexual violence, building a database that includes areas and times where these attacks have occurred in order to make others more aware.

"We implicitly trust the survivors of attacks and while we allow anonymous reporting, we record what happened in extensive detail," D'Silva says. "This helps us collect data and alerts us to a pattern of attacks."

To create a safe environment, India doesn't need new laws, she says. India already has strong laws regarding sentencing for convicted rapists.

"We need to believe survivors of attacks instead of blaming them for instigating the rape by what they were wearing or doing, or how late they were out at night," D'Silva says. "And then we need to acknowledge that while India may not be the only place where rape happens, sexual assault is still a very serious problem that we're dealing with."

How the legal system has responded

Government data shows a low conviction rates for people charged with rape: with only 28 out of every 100 receiving any jail time.

Many cases of rape drag on in courts for years — sometimes for over a decade, says Sunitha Krishnan, founder of Prajwala, a non-governmental organization that aids victims of sex trafficking. "Much of these delays are caused by counsels of perpetrators of sexual violence finding legal loopholes that their clients can take advantage of, or just filing injunctions to delay the verdict. These legal games are a problem. Eventually, the prosecution of such cases falls through, because after so many years, victims refuse to cooperate. They just want their lives back. And when cases drag on, it sends out a message to rapists that they can get away with anything and puts the survivor at risk to harm in the future as well."

Lengthy trials, which D'Silva describes as "exhausting, emotionally and physically," likely discourage women from even reporting attacks.

In this particular case, however, the Indian authorities were quick to announce that action was taken swiftly. In addition to the arrests a check for one million rupees ($12,000) was issued — money from a government fund that allows victims of crime to claim compensation or monetary relief even before the perpetrator is convicted.

However, this relief is rare and not extended to all victims, says Krishnan, the activist who works with women who have been trafficked — and certainly not with the speed it was given after the March 1 gang rape.

This rapid response was possibly because of widespread media attention and the fear that the media fallout from the incident would affect tourism, but this speedy justice is seldom extended to the average victim of sexual assault in India, say the advocates interviewed for this story.

NPR asked India's National Commission for Women to address criticism of the justice system in its treatment of those who are raped. The commission did not respond by our deadline for publication.

Family support

The advocates also note another reason the rape statistics in India may be an undercount. They say that families of women who are raped sometimes shame them into silence because they're afraid that the news of the rape could affect the woman's marriage prospects or the family's reputation.

"It was heartening that the Spanish woman who was raped had the support of her husband," says D'Silva. "Ultimately it's also about creating conditions where women feel safer about speaking out about rape and reporting it."

Kamala Thiagarajan is a freelance journalist based in Madurai, Southern India. She reports on global health, science and development and has been published in The New York Times, The British Medical Journal, the BBC, The Guardian and other outlets. You can find her on X @kamal_t

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kamala Thiagarajan
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