What is behind India’s Rape Problem?

The recent tragic death of a young Indian woman after she was gang-raped in Delhi gathered extraordinary attention around the world. However, it has been clear for quite a while to any reader of the Indian media, where cases of rape are casually reported, that India has a problem here. According to the official figures, rapes in India doubled between 1990 and 2008, outpacing population growth. It can be safely assumed, because of the intense shame in India associated with being raped, that the real numbers are much higher. What are the causes?

Many are quick to point to the skewed sex ratios among younger age groups in the country. The preference for sons in India together with – since about 1980 – the increasing use of ultrasound machines in order to determine the sex of the unborn child, has resulted in the abortion of millions of unwanted girls. The official Indian figures for sex ratio at birth in 2011 were 111 boys per 100 girls, well above the ‘normal’ rate – 105. It is estimated that by 2020 India will have a ‘surplus’ of about 30 million males in the 20-35 age group.

Whilst it is correct that skewed sex ratios in India are a large part of the problem, there are also other factors just as important. India’s urban population grew from 286 million in 2001 to 377 million in 2011, representing more than 31 % of its people. A large proportion of these are young men from rural areas seeking work.  Living in the  villages and other small communities such men, and others, are constrained in their attitudes – and resulting behaviours  – by the traditions and rhythms of rural life. The rules of religion and caste, together with the duties of family, combine to determine a relatively tightly structured existence for the individual.

Migration to urban areas, together with increased educational opportunities, weaken all of these bonds. Thrown into the relative anonymity of India’s teeming cities, the forces of family and religion and traditional structure are attenuated, migrants are confronted, more or less for the first time, with another way of life, even if they are, themselves, on the outside looking in.

This links in with a further factor. Approximately 60% of Indian households now have televisions. This is growing quickly – between 2007 and 2011 the number of Indian households with TV grew by 25%. Internet usage is growing even more quickly. From 2008 to 2010 the user base doubled from about 50 million to about 100 million. The demographic among which Internet usage is growing most quickly is of course young men. They are thus exposed to much more sexual and semi-sexual imagery than was previously the case, particularly through the medium of Internet pornography. This is occurring at a time, when Indian society generally is still dominated by conservative mores, such that opportunities for casual sex are very limited compared to the situation in the West.

Putting all these factors together would seem to account for the problem. What is the prognosis?

The most recent census in 2011 would seem to indicate a certain amount of stabilisation in the sex ratio at birth. Whatever happens now though, there will still be a deficit of women for decades to come. The penetration of the Internet will increase, particularly through the spread of smartphones, sharpening the contradiction with the values of Indian society hitherto. It can be expected that prostitution will increase and that women will have to curtail their own freedom of movement for safety reasons.

Taking a somewhat broader view, this points out one of the challenges to the much trumpeted rise of India as one of the BRICs. Men with no opportunity to form families are men with no stake in the stability and advancement of the wider society. This story will get worse before it gets better.

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