It’s Not Her Fault: Sexual Violence in India

By Avantika Abhyankar
Contributing Writer

Sexual violence is a serious and prevalent issue in India. In addition to the plethora of psychological and emotional tolls that it inflicts, it also carries a detrimental sociological effect on the communities surrounding the victims. Indian culture has perpetually been a catalyst for female subordination. Traditions and practices ingrain the concept of gender inferiority in the minds of the rural Indian population. Deeming a woman unfit for a role other than that which is restricted to a household sphere automatically brands her as a supplementary to her male counterpart in society. A young state initiates this perception, which encourages the practice of female feticide and infanticide in early years and dowry bargaining into later years.

Sexual violence and rape in particular have been taboo topics in Indian culture for a majority of its history. It is a crime people choose not to revolve discourse around, primarily due to the country’s generally conservative mindset. Conservative government officials in India have expressed their views towards sexual violence aggressively, claiming that the increased rates of rape and sexual barbarity are direct ramifications of India’s increasing globalization and first-world exposure. The ultra conservative, right-wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat addressed the issue of rape by stating that “[crimes such as rape] won’t happen in Bharat or the rural areas of the country.”[1] His assertions illustrate the notion that rapes and other acts of sexual deviance occur only in urban, globalized and exposed parts of the country, a view that is parallel with the majority of the population hailing from extremely rural parts of India.  A disregard for the fact that rapes happen daily in rural areas, but are more likely to be reported in an urban area forms the base for Bhagwat’s assertion.

However, due to the conscious ignorance towards these crimes, statistics for rape in India have increased rapidly and exponentially in recent years. The statistics show over 600 cases reported in 2012 exclusively. However, these reported rapes do not include the plethora of acts of sexual violence that go unaccounted, and thus are not investigated. The aggregate data gathered on rape illustrates an unfathomable amount of pain, violence and unjust sociopolitical practices and ideals. Rooted in familial practices and culturally generated apathy, the rise in sexual crimes in India must cease, thus easing the sociopolitical and psychological consequences that come with them.

The roots of sexual violence in India roots lie in the general subordination shown towards women throughout Indian history. The growth of women in the corporate, political and social spheres has been a constant point of contention to most of Indian society. For decades, measures, legal or not, have been taken to prevent the potential infringement of a woman’s outlook on a patriarchal civilization. Two significant measures of action taken against women in India are the practices of female feticide and infanticide, as well as dowry giving and bargaining. Their presence in the structure of Indian culture serves as an impetus for other acts of violence against South Asian women, specifically, rape.

Female feticide is the inherently linked to the mindset that women hold a subordinate role to males, a view ingrained into the minds of Indian society from a young age. Female feticide and infanticide have proliferated themselves into rural Indian culture for generations on end. Female feticide, defined as the discriminatory abortion of female fetuses, is one of the most brutal forms of murder in India. Feticide takes the concept of a female’s lack of worth and hashes it down to her very right to live—it denies a woman the intrinsic right to simply be born. Although sex-selective abortion is illegal in India, there are several underground abortion clinics that provide means to abort fetuses based on their gender. Shocking census results displayed a dramatically decreasing sex ratio in India. In 2001, the female to male child ratio was around 927:1000, with numbers falling to 914:1000 in the recent 2011 census.[2] Although laws such as the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act of 1971 and the Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques Act of 1994, modified in 2002, target sex-selective abortion, the use of advanced technology mixed with social concerns towards the low status of women provide alleys for illegal gender specific abortion and infanticide. The background for these practices is embedded in the weight of the family name and the illustration of a woman as a financial burden. The birth of a son in India is considered a joyous occasion, because throughout his lifetime he will carry on the family name as well as be a source of incoming wealth through his marriage dowry.

In addition to restricting a female’s right to birth, the subordination of the Indian female population continues through their lifetimes, culminating in their labeling as a commodity when they reach marriageable age. By simply being born a female, a girl-child is considered a financial encumbrance to her family, as in order to get her married, a hefty payment, or dowry, is required. This inherently displays the female race as a commodity, one that can be bargained for “purchase.”  Dowry bargaining has been an issue in Indian culture for generations, with several laws and restrictions being drawn up in an attempt to cease the violent crimes and assaults that result as additional products of practicing dowry giving. Upon the birth of the girl-child, families are required to hold back on expenses in order to save for their daughter’s wedding dowry gift. In order to do so however, cuts are made upon their lifelong opportunities. For example, many girls are required to forfeit their right to an education, as it is believed, especially in rural, less wealthy areas, that their education will not be a useful investment. Furthermore, several negativities can arise on the chance that a dowry is not paid in full. In particular, women whose families fail to pay their dowry in full may be sold to a red light district as a sex worker, or furthering the rape culture, be violated sexually and physically as a punishment for being unable to fulfill the required pre-marital economic demands.

Unfortunately, many sexually violent crimes go unreported in fear of further brutality or void of escape. The rape count in India, if unreported rapes were factored into the sum statistic, would reach into the tens of thousands. Only recently has there been an increased awareness and opposition to the violent sexual crimes that have been occurring for generations, and it has been due to the grievous gang rape of a 26-year-old middle-class female, who remains unidentified till this date. Gang-raped and beaten to near death by a group of six men on a bus ride back from the cinema, “Nirbhaya”, as the media christened her, suffered a slow and painful death. Her rape, committed in a public arena, was brought to light and catalyzed a massive anti-rape movement in India. The media began to highlight several succeeding rape cases openly in the newspaper—something that had not been seen before. The main question at hand here is why it took this particular rape case to serve as an impetus for a movement that should have been taken into arms years ago. The answer lies in the socioeconomic and cultural structure of India, as previously mentioned. Given that “Nirbhaya” was a middle-class, educated girl from a decent family, her rape tore into the picturesque lives of the literate population of India, who felt fearful for their personal safety after witnessing the sexual violation of a girl so close to their own social strata.

Currently in India, several laws have been passed in attempts to regulate and lessen the number of violent sexual crimes and potentially erase them altogether. However, it is important to criticize them, as although the Indian government has passed them, they have not been enforced, and have regularly been overlooked in return for bribes. In order to fully analyze the potential to change this behavior towards gender based crimes, one must be aware of the kinds of laws in existence in India. Two prominent laws include the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961 and the Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques Act of 1994. The Dowry Prohibition Act was meant to do as its name implies— prohibit dowries. It was one of the first steps taken to create a barrier against the consequential crimes of dowry practice. Although this act was passed in order to prevent the practice of bride price, this custom still exists in most of the rural areas of India. It is a culturally inbuilt tradition that will not halt until the youngest generation of to-be-brides and husbands are educated on the consequences of labeling a potential spouse as an object versus a person. Until Indian society recognizes the wrongfulness of objectifying and pricing a female based on her apparent worth, the practice of bride price will remain a form of unregulated servitude.

The Pre-Natal Diagnostics Techniques Act of 1994 deals with the problem of female infanticide. The act was a step that was taken to prevent the misuse of advanced technologies to target sex-specific abortions in India. This law targeted the rampant practice of gender specific abortion in India. The law attempts to cease the termination of pregnancies based on the singular factor of gender and worth of a girl child. However, even after it was passed, several underground gender-based abortion clinics continued to use methods of advanced technologies to prevent the births of several female infants. By enforcing the constant regulation of every clinic in rural areas, as well as undocumented midwife practices, this number will begin to shift.

Clearly, the Indian government has feebly attempted to rectify the horrifying presence of sexual violence in India. However, these laws have floundered and died after leaving their initial impact on society, rendering them essentially futile. Two courses of action must be taken in order to raise awareness towards these crimes and ultimately curb their presence exponentially.

The first process involves using the current governmental organizations to bolster the existing laws. Government officials must take up this cause and use their power in society to reinforce these protection laws. Unless the culpable offenders of these laws, namely sexual predators and rapists, feel the legal repercussions of their actions, there is no hope to ultimately halt these crimes. In order to persuade the Indian community to understand that these crimes will no longer simply be overlooked, or ignored for a bribe, the government must crack down on these lawbreakers and force them to face the consequences of miscreant activities. This can be achieved by encouraging women to report acts of violence committed against them, by creating either a phone line or a space where their safety can be assured under police control. If women begin to regularly report violent crimes, punishments as a result of these crimes can be instated with greater vigor.

The second proposed process for reform lies in the sphere of education. Education, not only limited to the classroom arena, can be a powerful reformative tool. The subject of rape and sexual violence in India is an extremely taboo topic, with many choosing to ignore its very existence. Although it may take years to open the minds of the Indian public to the rampage of sexual crimes that occur in their own neighborhoods, a starting point is required. By reaching out the youngest generation of school going children and instating required policies to teach them about safe gender practices, the roots of the nation can be fostered to implement an ultimate change in the mindset of the Indian population. It would be necessary to target the youngest generation, as they are, and will be, the most malleable in terms of cultural roots and opinions towards sensitive subjects, as older generations have their beliefs and judgments on such topics firmly set.

Because the statistics for rape and sexual violence are so exponential in India, immediate action must be taken towards reducing these statistics at the fastest rate possible. It is crucial that the internal Indian government focuses on education the youngest generation of peoples in order to effectively change the set of culturally constructed beliefs towards sexual and gender biased violence in India. The policy recommendation of reinforcing the current laws in India does not create a financial burden on the government, nor does it ask for new laws to be passed. By simply sustaining the laws that have been passed and ingraining their importance into the mental faculties of the Indian public, there should be a significant change seen in the number of rape and gender based violence cases. The Indian government must work to address the problem of the inherently accepted rape culture of India in hopes of ultimately alleviating the nation of its innate consequences.


[1] Ghosh, Shamik. “Rapes Occur in India, Not Bharat, Says RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat.” NDTV Convergence Limited, 04 Jan. 2013. Web. 25 May 2013.

[2]Jamal, Ashraf. “Skewed Child Sex Ratio a Cause of Worry.” The Times Of India. Bennet, Coleman & Co. Ltd., 26 Mar. 2013. Web. 25 May 2013.

Image by Jordi Bernabeu