Speaking at a recent workshop in Mumbai for women journalists, women and child development minister Maneka Gandhi said, “As per that [National Crime Records Bureau, or NCRB] data, in the world we [India] ranked among the lowest four countries in terms of rape cases.” Based on NCRB data, Gandhi claimed that India’s rape and sexual violence problem has been exaggerated by the media, driving away tourists.
We strongly disagree with the minister’s assessment. Her statement is the result of a very common, yet incorrect, understanding of what the reported data on rape actually indicate. Gandhi’s statement rests on the misconception that the NCRB data – the only holistic data available for about 715 police districts across India – completely captures all occurrences of rape in the country, and appears to assume that there is no under-reporting (by victims) or under-recording (by the police) of rape in India.
We beg to differ. NCRB data on rape only reflects incidents of rape that have been registered at a police precinct. The NCRB collects crime details from the FIRs filed at over 15000 police stations across the country collated at the district and state levels. It is safe to assume that there are a substantial number of cases of rape that go unreported, although we do not know to what extent this may be. But a few things warn us about a grimmer possibility that what is reported is only the tip of a very ugly iceberg and that a majority of rape cases are not reported at all. For instance consider this – a comparison of the data from the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) conducted in 2005 with that of the NCRB revealed that among women in the 15-49 age group, only 5.8% of rapes by men other than the woman’s husband were reported to the police. Jagori, a Delhi-based women’s NGO, conducted a sample survey in 2011 which indicated that only about 0.8% of women who had faced sexual assault, stalking or harassment had reported it to the police.
If the reported data that the NCRB releases is all that we are interested in, then Gandhi is perhaps justified in saying that the incidence of rape in India is not that high. However, if we admit the possibility that the data are incomplete since a very large number of cases have not been captured, then we must grapple with a new reality; India would fall at the higher end of the scale if every single incident of rape was properly reflected in the data.
In the year following the Nirbhaya agitation (2013), the reported rape incidents jumped by 131.73% across the nine districts in Delhi. In an earlier editorial published in The Hindu we had argued that this spike was because the anti-rape agitation had increased awareness of sexual violence and helped do away with some of the stigma attached to being a victim of such violence.
This jump was an important indicator of an under-reporting problem and that as a country we had been wrong for years about the magnitude of the issue. It was evident that the agitation had spurred many women to step forward out of silence. This spike is also significant because the next highest ever jump recorded by the NCRB was between the years 2011 and 2012, when reported rape incidents rose by 23.43%.
Besides under-reporting, many other factors affect the data on rape, including under-recording of complaints by the police and the legal definition of rape as crime. For instance, marital rape is not recognised as a crime in India even though nearly two of every three women surveyed during the 2005 NFHS said their husbands had forced them to have sexual intercourse against their will. This means that just 2.3% of all rapes were by men other than their husbands.
As for under-recording by the police, an experimental study by Banerjee et al in Rajasthan found that field surveyors posing as regular citizens trying to report incidents were sent away without being able to file a report 52% of the time. Such alienation thus impacts public willingness to report a crime. The study also found that only 29% of crime victims had even tried to register the crime, often because they felt that the police would not make an effort to assist them. Among the respondents, 53% claimed that law-abiding citizens fear the police.
It is highly irresponsible for a government representative – Gandhi, in this instance – to obfuscate a very dangerous reality without looking at the piles of research that exist on this matter. Such an approach calls for complacency and could have potentially serious consequences for crime prevention efforts. Instead of addressing the causes of under-reporting and enabling more victims to come forward to report rapes, Gandhi’s attitude reeks of denial.
As minister for women and child development, Gandhi is tasked with protecting and ensuring the safety of the country’s women and children. Contrary to the expectations of her, and her position as minister, she has pontificated publicly on the prevalence of rape and that there is no danger to women in the country. Gandhi’s inferences are incorrect and misinformed.
Rape is a huge problem and will continue to remain so until India changes its ideas about women and consent. Any woman in the country, including foreign travellers, are at risk as long as this attitude persists.
Besides, it is also wrong to perpetuate the idea that it is only rape that foreign tourists should be worried about. Everyday sexual harassment, cat-calling, eve-teasing, grabbing, groping, belittling, commenting and the like are all male specific behaviours that Indian and foreign women are subjected to. These do not constitute rape, but are acts of violence aimed at disrespecting women, making them uncomfortable and demeaning them.
Can data on sexual violence be trusted to truly represent the magnitude of the problem? Crime data on rape cannot be used as an indicator for actual crime incidence for a number of reasons. It cannot tell us which city or state is relatively safe for women, nor can it tell us if a city or state has fared better or worse compared to previous years. All it can tell us is simply the number of women who decided to speak up and those who were fortunate to have their complaints recorded.