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India’s Women Are Haunted By A Sexual Violence Epidemic – By Joe Wallen
Tuesday - Dec 20, 2022
India’s Women Are Haunted By A Sexual Violence Epidemic – By Joe Wallen
Like so many women in India, Sunita has been groped in public. Her experience is a common one: she was sexually assaulted on a bus as she travelled to work in Delhi. After a few minutes into the journey, she felt a man pressing his body against hers. His breath was heavy on her neck, but Sunita could not move on the packed vehicle. “It was very scary but I expected it would happen,” she says. “It has happened to so many of my friends. They had warned me.”
Such is the prevalence of sexual violence in India, that millions of women like Sunita live in a constant state of anticipation, waiting for the inevitability of a crime that they can neither prevent nor report.  But despite the country’s reputation as one of the most dangerous places in the world for women, where rape, molestation and casual harassment is normalised across society, there has been minimal progress in tackling a silent epidemic that has raged for decades. Flashpoints of anger and rage among Indian women have threatened to change the status quo, but such moments have been fleeting.
Indeed, ten years have now passed since the brutal rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman, known as Nirbhaya, on a moving bus in Delhi. An eruption of nationwide protests followed, during which demonstrators held placards criticising the country’s police, burnt effigies of rapists and held candlelit vigils extending long into the night.
Several months after the horrific incident, the Indian government overhauled its laws around sexual violence, introducing much lengthier jail sentences for rape, for example. At the time, it was seen as a turning point for India. But, a decade on, little has changed.
Last week, the Times of India reported that a 42-year-old woman in Mumbai had been gang-raped in her home at knife point by a group of men who then inflicted burns on her genitalia with cigarettes.  The heavily-traumatised woman spent two days in hospital before being discharged to begin her long-recovery at home. Three people are now under investigation.
In the neighbouring state of Telangana, a traumatised foreign student approached police after a senior professor at her university allegedly kidnapped and raped her after class. Elsewhere, the body of a missing 13-year-old girl was found in a water works tank in the city of Hisar, in the northern state of Haryana. It was suspected she had first been raped. And across social media, Gujaratis recently expressed their anger after a well-known wrestling champion from the state admitted molesting over 100 women.
A gaping lack of data is one of the largest challenges in addressing India’s sexual violence epidemic, with the authorities seemingly unwilling or, perhaps, afraid to highlight the full extent of the issue. But available information clearly indicates that, ten years on from Nirbhaya’s tragic rape and death, Indian women are still subject to widespread sexual violence.
India’s National Crime Records Bureau documented 31,677 cases of rape nationwide in 2021 – a figure that is the tip of an iceberg in a country where only minutiae of sexual assaults are reported.
The National Family Health Survey from 2016 – the most recent dataset available – concluded that more than 99 percent of rapes in the country go unreported, while 47 percent of Indian girls suffer some form of sexual abuse during childhood.
“I don’t think there are any less sexual assaults, one decade on,” explains Dr Nayreen Daruwalla, the Programme Director for the Prevention of Violence against Women and Children at SNEHA, a non-profit organisation in Mumbai. “They are still not reported enough – the honour and shame involved still stops the vast majority of women from speaking out or from major society change occurring.”

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