India’s rape problem is neither unique nor new

Two days ago a news broke about a German professor allegedly denying an Indian male student the chance to apply for an internship position in her lab at Leipzig University in Germany. The reason she gave, seen from the screenshot of her email to the applicant that was posted on Quora, was, “We hear a lot about the rape problem in India which I cannot support. I have many female students in my group, so I think this attitude is something I cannot support.” The media was quick to pick up on this, the German ambassador to India, Michael Steiner, opined in to assure the professor that “India is not a country of rapists,” the professor apologized, and the internet uproar continues.

Whether Professor Annette Beck-Sickinger’s emails were taken out of context or not, as she claims it to be despite her unambiguous declarations, there is another issue which needs highlighting. It is deeply troubling to see the growing generalization of all Indian men in the West. At best, they are seen as male chauvinists and at worst, as potential rapists, except many of them are well-educated and respectful towards women. The finger-pointing and the insinuations do not make any headway in the struggle to combat rape, sexual assault, and gender-based violence India, born out of a deeply patriarchal culture over a thousand years.

Few would deny that India has a rape problem. The social stigma that is attached to rape combined with the prevalent culture of victim blaming plays a pertinent role in accurately determining how many cases of sexual assaults get reported. In 2013 NCRB reported there were 33,707 reported cases of rape committed against women in all states and union territories in India. Madhya Pradesh had the highest number of reported cases – 4,335 – while Nagaland had the lowest at 31. Among the Union Territories, Delhi, unsurprisingly, had the highest number at 1,636. The data does not, however, break down sexual assault, which I believe is a deeply problematic aspect of the way women are treated in India – intimate partner assault and abuse needs to be addressed at a much greater level for the country’s progression sake.

But India is not alone in its rape culture. There are plenty of statistics available on the internet from respectable organizations that show India’s per capita reported rape is not the worst in the world. The problem of under-reporting of rape is also not unique to a single country; in the United States, for example, in 2013 the Justice Department’s National Victimization Survey found only 34.8 percent of rape and sexual assault cases were reported.

If 34.8 percent of reported rape equals to approximately 300,170 victims in a year, then there are at least 562,387 cases of unreported cases, statistically speaking. That is a pretty high figure for the biggest economy in the world that celebrates the achievements of women with loud chest thumping and fervor. But two wrongs do not equal a right. Rape is still rape in every part of the world; it is still a gross violation of a person’s basic human rights; it is a trauma society is still learning to deal with, even as we live in the pinnacle of our civilization.

Let’s look at Germany. According to German Criminal Police Office, there were 7,408 cases of reported rape and sexual assault in Germany, 623 cases less than 2012. But the problem is, this data counts rape and cases of sexual assault and coercion separately. On page 25, towards the bottom half, you will notice a list of line items describing other types of sexual assault including “other types of sexual coercion under Sect. 177 (1 and 5) PC” – 4,868 – , “sexual abuse” – 22,433 – , and “sexual abuse of children” – 12,437, among others. For a country with a population of 80 million, the total tallied figure of reported cases of rape and assault will be significantly high, thus showing the problem of rape and sexual assault is not exclusive to India.

So what’s the solution? For starters, blatant generalization like the one made by Professor Beck-Sickinger does not benefit anyone, least of all the general struggle to curb sexual violence towards women, men, the LGBTQ community, and every other person regardless of their gender identities and sexual orientation. Instead, the focus should be to get the majority of men who will never rape or assault anyone in their lifetime to come out as partners and allies to the movement against sexual violence. When they see their friends harassing a woman (or man, or a member of the LGBTQ community, or just about anyone) without her consent, they can step in and tell them their actions are wrong. Peer pressure goes a long way to dissuade most people from doing things deemed socially unacceptable.

Of course the caveat here is that this will not put an instant stop to the rape epidemic that is prevalent everywhere. But it will go a long way to isolate and corner those who intend to commit acts of sexual violence on others into a corner. Today, because of the ongoing rape culture and habit of victim blaming, perpetrators live more boldly knowing that they will not become social pariahs if society is fixated on whether the victim was wearing a short skirt or had too much to drink. Victim blaming is particularly damaging to male victims of sexual assaults. They are expected to have fought off their attackers (mostly other men) and failing to do that, they are deemed weak and emasculated in society.

Lastly, it is important to raise awareness through education. Targeting young men and boys and changing their mindset in how they view women and other boys and men will go a long way in fostering an environment where women can feel safe and respected. But the education needs to be persistent and regular – having a school-wide talk on sexual respect once a month is not going to be nearly as effective as engaging young men and boys on a daily basis, even if for half an hour, to guide them to the realization that women are not sex objects; that they deserve respect in society irrespective of the way they dress or how late they stay out or how much of alcohol they consume.

The battle is an uphill task but misguided generalizations do not help anyone.

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