April 15, 2014 Abhijit Das
‘Rape and Society’
India is currently in the thick of its national election – the largest democractic exercise in the world. Mulayam Singh Yadav a very senior political leader in one of his campaign speeches said that boys sometimes make mistakes and hanging cannot be a punishment for rape. In all the din of lampooning, grandstanding, and mudslinging that goes on in the name of campaigns this comment made a minor flutter in the media before it was drowned by a fresh round of sloganeering. Mulayam Singh’s statement is sexist to say the least but also begs some analysis.
The air was thick with discussion on death penalty as an appropriate punishment for rape in the aftermath of the Nirbhaya case of Delhi. The Justice Verma Commission did not recommend the death penalty for rape. The subsequent changes in the law through the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act , 2013, includes provision of death penalty for rape along with injury which causes death or persistent vegetative state and for repeat offenders. The immediate cause for Mulayam Singh’s statement was the punishment of death penalty given to three of the accused in Shakti Mills rape case in Mumbai which took place soon after the Nirbhaya case in Delhi. The Shakti Mills verdict is probably the first important verdict on a rape case after the amendment of the rape laws. Mulayam Singh’s statement first draws attention to the punishment – death penalty. Here the judges used the provision of repeat offenders for three of the accused giving the death penalty under the amended provision of being “previously convicted of an offence punishable under section 376 etc..” since there were two concurrent cases against them. I am no legal expert but I do think the punishment may have responded to public sentiment rather than the word and spirit of the law. But what needs to be squarely condemned is his contention that ‘rape’ is a peccadillo of boys, that they sometimes make mistakes, and can’t be punished by hanging for such mistakes.
Rape is no minor mistake, it is a grave crime. Even today all forced sex is not a crime in India, because we do not recognize marital rape. Interestingly though according to the new law any sex before the age of 18 is a crime. And millions of girls are married off by their families much before and they have sex and children before 18 years. Leaving these aberrations aside rape can be considered a heinous crime. I have been asked many times by people from other countries whether the huge attention to rape has reduced rape in India. Frankly I have not been able to say ‘yes’, because the attention to and importance of rape has probably led to a higher visibility or reporting of rape. I often wonder why people ask me about the reduction in rapes ? Is the assumption that once rapes are more noticeable the rapists will stop, just like the assumption, that if rapes are punished with death sentence, it will have a deterrent impact. I can’t buy this simple logic, even thought the Mumbai judges seem to have gone by it. The Justice Verma committee report said that rapes are caused by governance failures implying that the system simply fails to do its job effectively. But that doesn’t explain why rapes keep on happening.
We know that rapes are an expression of power and subordination – over women and through women over communities. Widespread male domination of women is also said to be the reason behind rape. A recent six country study of the Asia Pacific region by Rachel Jewkes and colleagues shows non-partner sexual penetration, or rape by men, varied between 1 in 40 men in Bangladesh to 1 in 4 for Papua New Guinea, and an overall average of 1 in 10. Over 50 percent of the men who admitted to committing rape did so for the first time in their teens. Reasons given for rape included seeking entertainment, punishment or sense of entitlement. Reasons behind rape included individual factors, family factors as well as social factors including poverty, use of alcohol or intoxicants, negative experiences in early childhood, participation in gangs, masculinities emphasising heterosexual performance and low empathy. Research elsewhere has shown that ‘honour’ and ‘purity’ related family attitude toward women – ie. if women are blamed and punished instead of men also leads to a sense of impunity around rape and violence against women.
Going through all the data around rape a series of questions came up in my mind about rape and society –
• Why do we have a situation where millions of poor male children have to face negative childhood experiences including exposure to intoxicants?
• Why do men develop a sense of sexual entitlement?
• Where do boys learn about performance, aggression, dominance over women as a male virtue?
• Why do groups of boys become gangs without empathy?
• Why do we continue to blame women when it is men who are at fault?
Rape is an individual crime and needs individuals to be brought to book. The Justice Verma Commission noted that lack of governance as an important reason behind rape, but strengthening governance mechanisms related to the police, medical and judicial processes alone will not stop rape. Recently there have been a number of mobile apps to help women facing violence, but apps alone will also not stop rape. Women’s empowerment, pepper sprays, strong laws, efficient police work and impartial judges may all be necessary to address rape, but that too may not be enough.
We need to see rape as a symptom of the deep seated gender discriminatory and patriarchal systems in our society which have a seriously distorting effect on men’s attitudes and behaviours. We have to question how much physical, emotional and social protection we offer our children, including male children. We need to review how we bring up our sons and daughters – the value systems they imbibe about their entitlements and position in society. If we disempower our daughters through limiting their education or forcing early marriage and child bearing upon them, we do not help either by teaching our boys to to succeed at all costs, extolling the virtues of domination, subordination and control of women. Do mothers really teach their sons of the virtues of caring and sharing for their partners, of respecting women wherever they are? Do fathers inculcate values of compassion and coexistence instead of competition, winning, heterosexual performance. But parents alone are not at fault. We are living in a rapidly changing world of instant gratification, of self centred consumerism. Every minute of our waking day we are faced with a barrage of messages selling trivial and often redundant products but subtly reinforcing the same messages about women’s subordination, men’s dominance making a virtue of a deeply discriminatory social order.
Some readers might feel that I am trying to rationalize rape into a social and structural disorder rather than a crime. I don’t think I am doing so. The rapist is culpable. I do not believe in Mulayam Singh Yadav’s logic that ‘boys will be boys’ and need to be excused. On the contrary it may be this very attitude of ‘boys will be boys’ that provides them with the sense of entitlement. Boys and men need to be brought into the domain of ‘rape management’ before they are addressed as rape accused or criminals. Mama’s need to pay greater attention to how they bring up their boys, and Papa’s need to provide alternate role models of mutually respectful relationship with women. At the same time we need to acknowledge the structural reasons affecting men who rape– poverty reinforced by violent dominating models and ideologies of masculinity, of rapidly changing socio-economic scenario which many men are unable to negotiate, an economic model where all human values can be sacrificed on the altar of profit . And finally many many more men and boys need to stand up and protest against all instances of rape. We need safer homes, safer work places and safer streets for women, but above all we need safety through mutually respectful relations between men and women. Earlier curfew hours, smart mobile apps, separate compartments in commuter trains and harsher punishments can never be best ways to protect women from rapes.