A truly awful thing happened in New Delhi. The horrendous gang rape of a 23-year-old woman on a moving bus was sadly far from a rare crime in the Indian capital, but this time it captured the nation’s attention. Most tellingly, when she died this week of her injuries, her last words were: “Mummy, I am sorry … I am sorry.” In other words, as with a shocking number of rape victims in the subcontinent, she’d been made to feel that she was at fault in her own violation.
That caused something to happen – first in Delhi, then across India – that’s promising and long overdue: Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets and the media to denounce a climate of widely tolerated sexual assault, and a police and judicial neglect of sex crimes, that can credibly be called the worst in the world.
Indians have begun to recognize this epidemic of sexual hatred in their midst. Far from just a matter of rape, it’s an environment where, in some regions, there are 800 girls alive for every 1,000 boys, because sex-selective abortion and female infanticide are so widespread; where the physical abuse of women is seen as mundane; where even major sex crimes are usually described in major newspapers as “Eve-teasing.” India finally awoke this week to its national shame.
But then an odd thing happened in Canada and other Western countries: A number of prominent people, notably anti-rape activists and feminists, rushed to declare that India’s crisis wasn’t notably severe.
“Rape and sexual violence against women are endemic everywhere,” argued writer Owen Jones, denouncing those who describe India’s situation as a national crisis, since it’s just part of a global “pandemic of violence against women.” Discussions of India, Irish feminist Emer O’Toole wrote, are misplaced as they only serve to “minimize the enormity of Western rape culture.”
One Canadian activist told me, via Twitter, that Indians were wrong to describe their situation as an epidemic. “Labelling rape culture uniquely ‘Indian,’ when it is ubiquitous, is unfair and ignores the real problem,” she said, arguing that Indians were overdoing it. “Does India need to navel-gaze about how its culture treats women? Yes, but so do all countries, really.”
Yet, it’s not all the same. Not even close. To use the situation in New Delhi as a way to draw attention to sex crimes in Canada is akin to using the Rwandan genocide to make points about gang crime in Scarborough. Rape is a terrible crime everywhere, and it probably remains underprosecuted and all too commonplace and hidden in many places in the West, so there’s plenty of room for activism. But, in part because that activism has succeeded, rape is a grotesque anomaly, universally recognized as a serious crime. That’s not true at all in many parts of India.
In New Delhi last year, there were 635 rape cases brought to court, and only one resulted in a conviction. That’s a conviction rate of 0.16 per cent; in comparison, English-speaking countries typically have rape conviction rates of between 40 and 70 per cent. Of course, the situation is actually far worse than that, because very few rapes in India are ever reported.
A new report by the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada suggests that India’s reported rapes are “the tip of the iceberg,” that the real numbers are extremely high and that they’ve likely been sharply on the rise for the past decade. We shouldn’t pretend that this is an effect of poverty or a specific religion. In many poorer countries, rape is rare and taboo. In India, it’s both Hindus and Muslims, the middle class and the poor, who participate; in fact, it’s the less poor regions of India, in the north, where the murder of girls and the rape of women are most frequent. This hatred of women is a specific cultural development.
By contrast, rape has become dramatically less commonplace in the West. In one of the most comprehensive long-term studies of rape, the U.S. National Crime Victimization Survey (conducted for the Department of Justice) shows that the number of women who say they’ve experienced rape today is one-fifth the level of 1973.
What that also shows is that change is possible, that India’s epidemic isn’t inevitable or natural. Activism can work – but talk of a “universal rape culture” only helps perpetuate the problem.