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Rape: The shame of a nation

  • Blog Post Date 21 February, 2014
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Sudipta Sarangi

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

The proliferating number of rape incidents in India is chilling. This column discusses the various perspectives on the causes of rape, and the economic, social and legal factors that play a role in the high incidence of this crime in the country. It suggests taking steps to increase the cost of rapes for the perpetrators.

On 26 October 2013, a 16-year old girl was gang raped in West Bengal. Two months later, the culprits set her on fire to get rid of the ‘evidence’. She succumbed to her injuries soon after. In December 2013, two high profile cases of sexual harassment - one against the editor-in-chief of Tehelka magazine, Tarun Tejpal, and another against former Supreme Court Judge, AK Ganguly - came into the limelight. Clearly, these events question the sincerity of our efforts to stop violence against women.

Women in India are not safe anywhere – at home, the workplace or on streets. And this is despite the fact that incidents of violence against women regularly make headlines in Indian newspapers, especially since the brutal rape of ‘Nirbhaya’ in Delhi in December 2012.1Even minors, sometimes as young as four years, have not been spared by these predators.

As if this is not bad enough, the law enforcement machinery is shockingly apathetic towards the victims and their families. For instance, in a dramatic case of role reversal, the police have been known to offer meagre bribes to the families of rape victims for burying the incident.2 Even some of our elected leaders have gone as far as to publicly blame the victims.3

Social perspectives on rape

Society’s attitudes towards rape can be broadly classified into three categories.4 The first view blames the perpetrator and lists three causes of rapes – male sexuality (men cannot control their sexual urges), male pathology (rapists are mentally ill), and male hostility (hatred or dislike of women). Interestingly, while the first two causes hold men responsible for the crime, they shift the responsibility of prevention to victims. The notion that men cannot control their sexual urges holds women responsible for situations that might incite men - an act they can prevent. The male pathology view claims that rapists can be identified and hence it is the responsibility of women to be careful of such people. Of course, mere identification does not always help since the victim may not have the ability to protect herself. Male hostility is believed to be a cause for rape situations involving strangers.

The second view differs from male sexuality in a nuanced manner by holding the victim responsible for rape and is labelled “female precipitation”. This view has a clear male bias – blaming the victim for creating an environment suitable for rape like dressing provocatively, drinking with male friends and so on. Causes of rapes (male sexuality, male pathology and female precipitation) that put the responsibility for prevention on the victim and exonerate the perpetrator are quite aptly called ‘rape myths’. All three rape myths are present in our society and contribute to the high incidence of rapes in India.

The third view holds society responsible for rapes and attributes the crime to gender inequality or male dominance. The strength of the male dominance view is clear from the fact that rape is still considered to be a way to punish women and their families.5 The recent gang rape of a 20 year old woman ordered by a West Bengal village panchayat highlights the fact that rape is acceptable as a punishment not only by inpiduals but even by the society.6

Social and economic factors

There are a number of social and economic forces at work in India that also lead to the high incidence of rapes. To start with, lower literacy rates (our literacy rates have improved but are certainly not high) are associated with higher crime rates. Poverty is another serious factor that abets rapes in India since it is responsible for the lack of adequate sanitation facilities. The absence of toilets within the house is one of the factors contributing to the large number of rape incidents.7Women who are forced to use open fields as toilets in the dark are easy targets for rapists who being from the same village know when and where to attack. Social hierarchy plays an important role too, especially in the rape of Dalit8 and tribal women, who are treated like personal property without any human rights, because of their lower social standing.

Moreover, unlike in the West, incidents of date rape or rape by a partner are not reported as rapes in India which is an additional factor contributing to the lower number of reported rapes.

It is our view that in the Indian context, social and economic factors play a more important role in explaining the number of rapes, while the rape myths discussed above provide indirect social approval by directly or indirectly blaming the victim for the rape.

Crime and punishment

A rational criminal weighs the ‘benefits’ of a crime against its associated ‘costs’ – the probability of being caught, the magnitude of punishment, and time taken for conviction. Moreover, our (often corrupt) law enforcement machinery frequently does not pursue a case with enough vigour to even charge a perpetrator (lowering the detection probability), let alone obtain a conviction.9 This has a feedback effect on social attitudes towards crime - harsher and fast punishments reduce crime, while a slow legal process has the opposite effect.

Another crucial cost that is often ignored is the social censure that the perpetrator and his family may have to go through. Unfortunately, in India it is the victim and her family that is often subject to social censure.10 Hence, it is not surprising that a lower proportion of rape incidents are reported. There is no bigger facilitator of rapes than knowing that the likelihood of the rape being reported is low. In that sense the third rape myth where society is held responsible for such dastardly acts is significant in India.

Economic impact

An increase in the reported incidents of rapes has two kinds of effects on the economy - a direct effect and a reputational effect. The direct effect results in an immediate drop in the tourism activity in the country. Shortly after the ‘Nirbhaya’ incident (December 2012), a number of countries warned their female citizens to avoid travel to India, or at least, to some parts of India. A survey conducted by the Social Development Foundation of the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM) sometime after the ‘Nirbhaya’ incident found a significant drop in the number of tourists and foreign earnings.11This is important because according to the World Travel and Tourism Council, the travel and tourism sector contributed 6.4% ($121 billion approx.) of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in India, either directly or indirectly, and provided employment to 7.9% (39.3 million workers) of the workforce in 2011.

The reputational effect is the effect on the economy that results from a loss of reputation internationally. This not only hurts tourism activities but also results in a drop in foreign direct investment (Craigwell and Moore 2008, Fereidounia and Al-mulali 2012). Consequently, an increase in rapes will hurt the economy both in the short run and in the long run, and possibly the full impact of these crimes on the economy has not yet been felt.

Table 1. Foreign tourist arrival in India, 2011–2013

Notes: (i) FTA = Foreign Tourist Arrivals (in lakhs Rs.; 1 lakh = 100,000). (ii) Percentage change is measured for a given month in previous year to same month in current year. (iii) Source: Authors’ calculations based on reports published by Ministry of Tourism, Government of India.

Table 2. Foreign exchange earnings in India, 2011–2013

Notes: (i) FEE = Foreign Exchange Earnings (in Crore Rs.; 1 crore = 10,000,000). (ii) Percentage change is measured for a given month in previous year to same month in current year. (iii) Source: Authors’ calculations based on reports published by Ministry of Tourism, Government of India.

Time for change

In April 2013, in response to the series of rape crimes and protests, the Supreme Court of India introduced stricter laws regarding rape with the promise of fast-tracking such cases. However, in practice, we are still lagging far behind ? even a year after the ‘Nirbhaya’ rape incident, we have been unable to create fear in the minds of rapists and rapes continue to occur with alarming frequency.

What is striking is how unenthusiastically Indian youth have responded to these crimes. Yes, there have been protests, but nothing like what we observed in the wake of Anna Hazare’s protests against corruption. There seems to be no ‘India Against Rape’ to root out this even more terrible crime. While corruption is a crime against the economy, rape is a crime against a whole gender - against our mothers, wives, daughters and sisters. It is time for change; because once we hit the tipping point (and some believe we already have), reining back becomes extremely difficult. As the economics of crime perspective suggests, draconian laws and fast-track courts will not be enough. We need to change social attitudes, increase the probability of punishment, improve reporting, and take better preventive measures.

India needs to take measures that will increase the cost of the crime. Confidence and trust in the police need to increase. One obvious step is to increase the proportion of women in the police force beyond the existing 5%. Till police stations in India continue to be evaluated on the basis of resolved crimes, there will be little incentive to record First Information Reports (FIRs). Indeed, in a study conducted by Banerjee et al. (2011) in Rajasthan, decoys sent to police stations were able to get to the point of recording an FIR only 54% of the time. The names of rape offenders could be recorded in a publicly available database, or provided in print and digital media. Perhaps the National Film pision Corporation can revive its old newsreel format to provide information about such people in movie theatres and television.

Building toilets in houses should become a part of infrastructure provision by the government. The government should work to improve literacy rates since higher literacy reduces all types of crimes. In fact, states with higher literacy rates do have fewer reported rapes.12Let us shift the shame and blame to whom it really belongs – the perpetrators of rape. Let us make it easier for women to report rapes and live in society on equal terms. Let us not burden the victim with a scarlet letter. Until we can make these changes, corruption may continue to be the bane of India, but these rapes will be the shame of our nation. Indian society with all its persity has to come together to curb rape. Perhaps this is one instance where a forum like ‘India Against Rape’ would be most effective!


  4. For a review of different causes of rapes and rape myths see Cowan (2000).
  5. There is an established line of research which argues that when women participate in non-traditional roles, some men may use rape in order to control them (for instance, see Brownmiller 1975).
  8. Dalit, meaning ‘oppressed’, is a term of pride used by formerly untouchable castes, lowest in the caste hierarchy, officially known as Scheduled Castes.
  9. According to a Transparency International report (2011) on India, more people (64%) reportedly paid bribes for police services than any other services, while 45% of the respondents paid bribes to the judiciary.
  10. To understand rape from a victim’s perspective, please see
  12. It should be noted that this is a somewhat subtle issue. While higher literacy rates may reduce crimes, higher female literacy might lead to more reporting and hence we might find that high literacy leads to more (reported) crimes.

Further Reading

  • Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo, Daniel Keniston and Nina Singh (2011), ‘Making Police Reform Real: The Rajasthan Experiment’, mimeo, Yale University.
  • G. Bohner, F. Siebler and J. Schmelcher (2006), "Social Norms and the Likelihood of Raping: Perceived Rape Myth Acceptance of Others Affects Men´s Rape Proclivity", Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, vol. 32, no. 3, pp. 286-297.
  • G. Cowan (2000), "Beliefs About the Causes of Four Types of Rape," Sex Roles, vol. 42, no. 9/10, pp. 807-823.
  • H. Deborah and F. Heinrich (2011), ‘Daily Lives and Corruption: Public Opinion in South Asia’, Transparency International.
  • H. G. Fereidounia and U. Al-mulali (2012), "The interaction between tourism and FDI in real estate in OECD countries", Current Issues in Tourism, Vols. ahead-of-print, pp. 1-9.
  • S. Brownmiller (1975), Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, New York: Simon & Schuster.
  • W. Moore and R. Craigwell (2008), "Foreign direct investment and tourism in SIDS: evidence from panel causality tests. Published in: Tourism Analysis," Tourism Analysis, vol. 13, no. 4, pp. 427-432.
  • World Travel and Tourism Council, ‘India How does Travel & Tourism compare to other’. [Online; Accessed 24 May 2013].
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