June 15, 2021

Commentary: Why the huge problem of rape in India isn’t going away

7 min read

SINGAPORE: Seven years ago this week, India witnessed one of its most horrific crimes against a woman.

The brutal rape of Jyoti Singh, a 23-year old physiotherapy intern in a bus on her way back home from a movie with a male friend, shocked many across the world.

The six perpetrators, brutally raped her, going as far as inserting an iron rod and left her to die. She eventually succumbed to her wounds in a hospital in Singapore.

The case rocked India. Thousands took to the streets to protest, candle-lit vigils were held and fresh demands for new laws and stiffer penalties were made.  


One may think the incident would produce a sea-change in sexual violence against women. Sadly, not much has changed after seven years.

READ: Commentary: She’s practically asking for it? Do Singaporeans subscribe to rape myths?

In 2017, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) reported 32,559 rape cases, amounting to nearly 90 a day across the whole of India. This was 30.7 per cent more than the cases reported in 2012.

This and other cases have dubiously propelled the capital city New Delhi as the “rape capital” of the world.

In 2014, the number of rape cases proportionate to the women population was higher than in any other city or state in India with 1,813 reported rapes.

But the capital alone is not to be blamed.

READ: Commentary: India has a sexual assault problem only women can fix

In recent weeks, in particular, two cases elsewhere in India have taken the country by storm.

In Hyderabad, a young 27-year old vet returned to her scooter parked behind a truck, only to be dragged by the four occupants of the truck into a nearby compound, where she was raped and killed.

Demonstrators argue with a police officer during a protest against the alleged rape and murder of a
Demonstrators argue with a police officer during a protest against the alleged rape and murder of a 27-year-old woman in Shadnagar, on the outskirts of Hyderabad, India, November 30, 2019. REUTERS/Vinod Babu

Separately, in a non-descript industrial heartland called Unnao, a thousand kilometres north of Hyderabad, a 23-year old rape victim en-route to the court for the hearing of her rape case was accosted by five men, including her accused, and set ablaze. She subsequently died in hospital.


India is a country where goddesses rule the star-spangled pantheon of deities, riding tigers, slaying evil and showering good fortune.

Bollywood heroines rule Indian hearts. Indira Gandhi, TIME magazine’s ninth most powerful woman in the last century, was also India’s second longest serving prime minister and the rare female head of state in her time.

Despite these pedestals for females in India, what’s behind rape and sexual violence in India and why does this paradox exist?  


For one, India’s educational curriculum continues to skirt sex education.

READ: No industry for women: Bollywood #MeToo accused back at work

A healthy conversation about sexuality remains elusive. Most youngsters, including me, when I was young, learnt about the birds and the bees by stumbling along.

Moreover, there is a gender inequality that is steeped into the cultural norms and preferences of Indian society.

READ: Commentary: The enormous, avoidable waste of human capital caused by gender inequality

Speaking to this author, Suneeta Dhar, Senior Adviser of JAGORI, a women’s research centre based in Delhi said: “We don’t seem to love our girl-children,” suggesting deep-rooted societal norms.

“Patriarchal norms and hierarchies stay for a lifetime, and impact gender norms and attitudes— be it in schools, communities and institutions,” Dhar explained.

People participate in a protest against the rape of an eight-year-old girl in Kathua near Jammu, an
People participate in a protest against the rape of an eight-year-old girl in Kathua near Jammu, and a teenager in Unnao, Uttar Pradesh state, in India, Apr 17, 2018. (Photo: Reuters/Munish Sharma)

For example, the last rites of parents’ at funerals are performed by the male child. 

Traditionally, the male child is also seen as the custodian of the blood-line. Despite the female child having equal right of inheritance, the male child is considered the heir to the family’s property and wealth.


In a country famously known for an avowed son preference, the moot point is education and socialisation, suggested Singapore-based writer Coonoor Kripalani.

READ: Commentary: In India, women confined to homes, in cities designed for men

READ: Commentary: Do men feel stressed if their wives earn more?

Boys have to be educated not only about the equal status of the girl-child in the family but also about her contributions in the domestic sphere such as nutrition, health & hygiene, nurturing of future generations, as custodians of culture and family values, of stability in family life, Kripalani said.

A woman holds her baby as she leaves after casting her vote at a polling station at Sirohi
A woman holds her baby as she leaves after casting her vote at a polling station at Sirohi district in the desert Indian state of Rajasthan, India April 29, 2019. REUTERS/Amit Dave

This is important because, and ironically so, India’s rapes draw attention to the big happy Indian family celebrated in Bollywood movies.

But is the family, the safe haven it is considered to be?

According to the cases reported by the Indian National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) in 2017, in 93.1 per cent of them, the perpetrator was a family member, relative, family friend or ex-partner known to the victim.

READ: Commentary: What’s wrong with being a single woman?


Indians’ preference for a son should lead us to reflect on the current skewed sex ratio of 930 females per 1,000 males in 2011.

This indirectly explains why illegal, underground clinics that carry out sex-selective abortion still thrive.

READ: Commentary: A catastrophe of modern times when women in India go ‘missing’

READ: Commentary: India’s ban on commercial surrogacy is no fix to legal, moral complexities

“Economists once believed that sex-selection abortion would make women more valuable as they decreased in numbers. Instead, what we’ve seen is rise in sex-trafficking and rape,” American writer Mara Hvistendahl, author of Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Women, said.


What about the custodians of the state and the rule of law?

These are supposed to protect women and provide them justice. But the reality is quite different from this rhetoric.

The rule of law exists but is impeded by lengthy trial, review and mercy appeal.

If you go back to the Delhi rape case of 2012, since one of the accused was a juvenile, he was sent to a reform home after his arrest and later, released.

Seven years on and the victim’s family is still awaiting justice as the remaining four perpetrators have yet to face tIndia heir capital punishment after (unsuccessful) appeal attempts. Earlier, this week it was reported that one of the four facing the gallows filed a fresh appeal against the death penalty.  The hard facts are that in a populous country like India, the courts are bogged down by the weight of pending cases.

In 2017, the courts disposed of a hefty 18,300 cases but more than 127,800 cases remained pending. Conviction rates remain low at 32.2 per cent.  

India's Supreme Court wants special courts to hear child rape cases
India’s Supreme Court/ (File photo: AFP/Sajjad Hussain)

The Delhi case of 2012 sparked some legal reform – the maximum punishment for rape is now the death penalty instead of life imprisonment. Juveniles aged 16 to 18 will be tried as adults in heinous offences such as rape. Nevertheless, these stricter laws do not seem to be an adequate deterrent.


According to the NCRB, the number of cases filed have dropped from 95.4 per cent in 2013 to 86.6 per cent of all investigated and guilty cases in 2017. 

This highlights a new challenge – the massive under-reporting of rapes.

Though this changed after the 2012 Delhi rape case, with more victims coming forward, women are still reluctant to file reports, and often withdraw reports at the behest of their families who think that public attention will bring shame to the family.

A protest in Mumbai against sexual assault in India. Police have long been criticised for not
A protest in Mumbai against sexual assault in India. Police have long been criticised for not preventing violent crimes or for failing to bring cases to court. (Photo: AFP/Punit Paranjpe)

As seen in the Unnao case, even when a woman musters the courage to file a case, she may not live to see justice as she puts her safety at bigger risk.

International studies have also underscored how rape remains a massive problem for India.

In 2012, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime placed India 85 out of 121 countries on reported rape. Botswana tops the list, Sweden is placed fourth and the US is placed 16th. 

READ: Commentary: Class, privilege and stereotypes about the perpetrators of sexual assault

According to World Population Review of 2019, India has 1.8 rape incidents per 100,000 citizens, lower than in Australia, France, Italy and Singapore.

Kalpana Viswanath, founder of Safetipin, an Indian-based technology platform for addressing women’s safety agreed that under-reporting is a big hurdle.

“Reported figures in India are a lot lower than say, victimisation surveys, and cases of sexual harassment often come to the fore in focussed groups,” says Viswanath. 

The reported high figures in Sweden, the US or even Singapore may have to do with greater empowerment, awareness and de-stigmatisation.

For instance, in India, rape within a marriage is not a crime.  And only recently did acid attacks on women become a crime.

In curbing and understanding the problem of rapes in India, it is important to recognise that there is not one isolated factor.  

There are a confluence of issues and reasons, each reinforcing the other. Ranging from a lack of sexual education to societal norms that entrench gender inequality to inadequate legal deterrence, the problems run deep.

Addressing the problem requires a multi-faceted approach.

Perhaps the first step forward is education, fast-track trials that are supposed to be fast-track, more openness to talk about sex education and self-defence lessons for girls.

Anurag Viswanath is a Singapore-based writer and author of Finding India in China: Travels to the Lesser Known (2015).