Home is where the hurt lies

Melinda Gates, one of the world’s most powerful women, while speaking against the increased spate of rapes in India, said that a survey conducted by her foundation confirms that the menace of domestic violence in India is much higher than estimated by the government. Quick to follow was a report by British medical journal, Lancet, which has pulled up the Indian government about the increasing incidents of rape and domestic violence against women and girls. It touched upon the issue of under reporting of incidents that occur within homes in India and urged the government to allocate resources for victim protection.

The link between domestic violence and rape from the above two instances is in sharp contrast with recent government strategies to address the issue of rape in India.

The local and international media’s overexposure of the two gangrapes of young women — the first in Delhi in a private bus in 2012 and the second in Mumbai in a deserted textile mill compound — by lower class men has created a fear psychosis in the minds of our young women in urban cities.

Riding on the insecurity of women and adopting an approach of “make hay while the sun shines”, many private vendors have come out with various gizmos such as pepper strays and mobile apps to instil in our young women a feeling of safety, even as the number of incidents of rape continue to rise. The mobile apps have been promoted as measures of providing safety to women and as a means of promoting participatory democracy where women can help map the areas that are not safe and the police can be alerted at the click of a button.

At the policy level too, various projects have been launched to make our cities safe for women. Initiatives like lighting up the streets, CCTVs in public buses, toilets in homes, etc., have been promoted as preventive measures to counter sexual violence.

The underlying presumption that drives these efforts is a generalisation from these two high-profile incidents, that rapes occur in deserted places, unlit street corners, on buses and public transport. This assumption overlooks the hard reality that most cases occur in the private spaces of our homes and neighbourhoods.

For example, the 2014 National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report states that of the 36,735 reported rapes in India, 91 per cent are by known persons and 9 per cent are by strangers.

The most disturbing fact highlighted in a study of 644 cases conducted by Majlis was that 74 per cent victims were minors below the age of 18 years. Most were from marginalised sections, poverty-stricken backgrounds and were “out of school”. Many of these young girls were pregnant at the time of reporting the crime.

Family abuse (rapes within the home by family members) constituted 18 per cent of total rapes. What was even more disturbing was that rapes by fathers/step-fathers alone constituted 7 per cent, almost comparable to stranger rapes. The most common place of abuse was the home of either the victim or the abuser (60 per cent) and rapes in public places constituted only 15 per cent of the total cases. While most cases of stranger rape were reported after a single incident, when it came to family rapes they were reported after the abuse had gone on for a long period of time.

Another important finding was that in rapes by locality boys, neighbours and other known persons, which constituted 43 per cent, the vulnerabilities of these girls within their families were very high. Severe physical abuse by family members, lack of basic care and nurture was the narrative of most of these victims.

Incidents of abuse cannot be examined in isolation without connecting this phenomenon to the vulnerabilities faced by women in general, but young and adolescent girls in particular. Even cases of “rape under promise of marriage”, where a neighbourhood boy is able to entice a neglected girl child and lure her into a sexual relationship and then discards her, needs to be located within the general vulnerabilities of the girl child within her home.

“Unless the status of a girl within her own home improves, all other efforts will only be cosmetic.”

The incident of rape, the stigma, the resultant investigation and trial procedures which are terrifying, only served to push these girls several notches down the socio- economic ladder. In the absence of a viable victim support programme, most cases ended in acquittal which made these girls appear as “liars”, adding to their trauma and depression. What is disturbing is that the ecosystem within which these vulnerable girls are sexually abused is absent in our rape discourse.

Studies have highlighted the low socio-economic and health status of women and girls in India. Apart from sex selective abortions, girls between 0-6 years tend to be more undernourished, susceptible to illness and educationally more backward than boys. Many are married off at an early age, which results not only in early pregnancy, but also intense domestic and sexual abuse in their marital homes. While the girl child campaign addresses some of these issues, seldom have these studies highlighted the high rate of sexual abuse of adolescent girls within their homes and in immediate surroundings.

While articulating the need for making our public spaces safe, we need to address vulnerabilities of girls within homes and provide them with safe options. The concern is that even if public places are made safe, it will not bring down the incidents of rapes, because the entire campaign is based on an erroneous premise that rapes only occur in public places.

Unless the status of the girl child within her own home improves on all counts — health, nutrition and education, but more importantly to raise girls to be strong and independent, to not make marriage and raising a family her ultimate goal and to ensure men and boys learn to respect women — all other efforts will only be cosmetic and will not yield the desired results.

Audrey D'mello