Living as a privileged family in Singapore, we are relatively sheltered from issues that face millions of women around the world. However, in some places, their human rights are shockingly and horrifically violated. Such is the case in India, where approximately 35,000 women reported they were raped in 2015. Shockingly, that means a woman is raped in India every fifteen minutes. We can clearly see rape is very real problem for millions of women.
Following the fatal 2012 Delhi Gang Rape and the child rape and murder of eight-year-old Asifa Bano in January of 2018, there have been widespread calls for stronger protection and rape laws globally and locally within India. Rape clearly violates several articles from the UDHR – namely, Article 1 and 2 (Right to Equality, Right to Freedom from Discrimination), Article 3 (Right to Life, Liberty, and Security of Person), and Article 5 (Freedom from Torture or Degrading Treatment). These rights are all positive rights, meaning that every person is entitled to the freedom from, for example, degrading treatment. While in this essay I will only be focusing on this violation in the context of India, it is clearly a global problem as well; in fact, it is estimated that 97% of rapists worldwide will never be incarcerated. Nor is this only a problem that occurs in less socio-economically developed countries – in Afghanistan, for example, a woman can go to jail for being raped, and in the United States, for example, a woman is more than twice as likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than she is to get breast cancer. Rape clearly transcends culture; but interestingly, in order to address the violation, we need to understand the cultural and social context within which the rape occurs.
Looking at the 2012 Delhi Gang Rape case, there are many different perspectives which are held by many different stakeholders. One of the perpetrators of the fatal rape, Mukesh Singh, believes that rape is – and always will be – a reaction to a woman or girl’s actions; that the boy is never responsible. “When being raped, she shouldn’t fight back. She should just be silent and allow the rape. Then [we would] have dropped her off after ‘doing her’… A decent girl won’t roam around at nine o’clock at night. A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy,” he said in 2012. So we can clearly see that girls are often blamed for being raped, being told from a young age “dress modestly, don’t go out at night, don’t go to bars and clubs, don’t go out alone. If you [do], you will be blamed for the consequences.” It is a common misconception that rape culture in India and the related perspectives are based on faith – in fact, they are much more based off cultural and social influences. In India, some of the largest influences on perspectives – such as Mukesh Singh’s – are the leaders. Jagmati Sangwan, a women’s rights activist said “[a] rapist has learnt only what he hears leaders in his community say”, and Mulayam Singh Yadav, politician and leader of the Samajwadi Party said: “Boys make mistakes. They should not hang for [raping a girl]. We will change the anti-rape laws.” during his campaign. Messages such as these teach boys that they will not be held accountable for their actions regarding rape, and it becomes culturally normal for rape to happen. It’s a cycle – women are taught they should not go out late at night, so some men think that when they do go out late at night, they are ‘entitled’ to rape her. Because of this mindset, women are again taught not to do certain things, and the cycle of rape continues.
In contrast to this rather extreme perspective, the United Nations have spoken out against rape several times – for example, following the rape of eight-year-old Asifa Bano and of an eight-month-old baby by her 28-year-old cousin. The UN often takes a culturally relativist approach, respecting cultural and ethical traditions in different countries – but does not do so in this case. The UN believes in universalism – that human rights should be applied without exception. The spokesperson of the UN Secretary General said that this specific violation is about “equal rights. It’s about access to health. It’s about access to education. It’s about empowerment of women. We very much hope that the authorities will bring the perpetrators to justice so they can be held accountable,”. This is one of the UN’s core beliefs – as shown as in the well known first article of the UDHR: “all humans are born free and equal in dignity and in rights”. The UN’s perspective is one shared by many worldwide; however it is not enough to cause any change towards the violation unless something more tangible is put into practice within India itself.
What started as student led protests turned into huge outcry after the 2012 Delhi Gang Rape, has lead to the local Indian government making one huge change to rape laws: any man found guilty of raping a girl under the age of 12 will be sentenced to death, and the minimum prison sentence for rape of girls over the age of 16 has also been raised. Whether you are for or against capital punishment in principle, this seems like a step towards addressing rape. However, despite the change de jure it has been argued that the death penalty has not actually worked de facto. Critics often point out that the root of the problem is not addressed by the death penalty; the mindsets of potential rapists have not changed. In fact, rapists are now more likely to murder their victim afterwards, in order to avoid the punishment of the death penalty. Singh, one of the perpetrators of the 2012 Delhi Gang Rape said: “The death penalty will make things even more dangerous for girls. Now when [men] rape, they won’t leave the girl like we did. They will kill her. Before, they would rape and say, ‘Leave her, she won’t tell anyone.’ Now when they rape, especially the criminal types, they will just kill the girl. Death.”. This perspective suggests that the death penalty does not act as a deterrent for rapists, and thus is not an effective solution to the problem. Although the death penalty has succeeded in getting justice for some rape survivors, this attempt by the local government has not been successful in preventing rapes – in a sense, rapists have been incentivized to murder their victims as well to keep them quiet.
In order to truly address the human right violation, we need to educate people on consent and rape. My personal view is that we live in a society that teaches girls “don’t get raped” instead of boys “don’t rape”, and we need to start to address the root of the issue. Despite all the media coverage and outrage surrounding the rape culture in India, which does act as a catalyst for action, the long-term solution must be less reactive and more preventative in nature – that is, we need to work towards a more systemic shift of mindset within India in order to truly change the rape culture we are surrounded by.
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