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Rape in India and the shame of a nation

A 23-year-old woman – dubbed ‘Nirbayha’ by the press – was beaten and raped onboard a bus in New Delhi by a gang of men. The attack left her in critical condition, and Nirbhaya succumbed to her injuries in hospital two weeks later.

The incident made international headlines, highlighting what The Independent called a rape culture in denial. It provoked violent demonstrations across the country and a visceral response in the Indian parliament, with many politicians demanding retribution. Four years on, however, there is little discernible improvement.

India has a rape problem on an immense scale. In 2013 – the year after the gang rape – 92 women were raped each day, on average. Since then, the situation has worsened. Figures released earlier this year by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) said that there were 34,651 reported incidents of rape in 2015. Delhi registered as many as 2,095 rapes in 2015 – the most in fifteen years – and 5,192 cases of molestation. The number of rape cases in the capital has risen successively every year since 2009.

The problem is not limited to cities, however. In fact, it has been suggested that the incidence of rape is much higher in rural communities, where the population is often poorer – again emphasising the profound and far-reaching effects of India’s socioeconomic divide. For example, a recent study has found that women who use open defecation spaces are at a “uniquely higher” risk of being sexually assaulted, indicating that the poor quality of sanitary infrastructure in rural India leaves poor Indians vulnerable to much more dangers that conventional wisdom would suggest.

The Wall Street Journal said that the number of reported rapes increased by 39% in 2015. The Journal suggested that this was an indicator of progress, “as it may mean more women have become emboldened enough to report the crime.” However, the legal process is often more punishing for the victims rather than the rapists themselves. Some court cases can last up to ten years, Reuters reports. Furthermore, in the majority of cases, justice is not served.

The high incidence of rape in India constitutes a major health crisis, as well as a legal, societal and moral one. As well as the violation of the body and consequent physical damage, the victim is often left vulnerable to sexually transmitted infections, internal injuries and pregnancy. In addition, rape frequently induces in the victim profound psychological harm, afflicting her with mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As Health Issues India has written before, India’s mental healthcare system is sorely neglected. It thusly stands to reason that a large number of rape victims will not receive the psychiatric attention they need.

Many victims commit or attempt suicide. Some say that these deaths can be attributed to a misogynistic, victim-blaming mentality that permeates Indian society.

Many countries all the world over need to make progress on women’s basic human rights and India is no exception. There is arguably no human right more fundamental than the right to be in good health and to feel safe. There is a direct and distinct correlation between the two. Women’s health in India is an expansive and complex issue influenced by a variety of economic, social and political factors and issues. Rape is certainly one of them. For India to make the strides it needs to make in women’s health – especially if it is going to meet UN targets by 2030 – the issue must be addressed.

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