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Opinion – sexual assault remains a blight on India’s conscience

The recent gang assault of a Spanish vlogger in Jharkhand, India, is an alarming wake up call. India can no longer deny its sexual violence issue and must collectively work towards a solution.

TW: This article contains detailed descriptions of sexual assault and violence. Reader discretion is advised.

Earlier this month, a Spanish travel vlogger’s dream of exploring India turned into an unimaginable nightmare. In Jharkhand’s Dumka district, seven men allegedly threatened her with a dagger, kicked, punched, and repeatedly raped her over two and a half traumatic hours.

“My face looks like this, but it’s not what hurts me the most. I thought we were going to die,” the 28-year-old survivor said in a video statement.

As details of the Dumka gang-rape emerge, they cast a pall over India’s global image. Foreign media has rightly highlighted India’s grim sexual violence statistics – an average of nearly 90 rapes reported daily in 2021, per the National Crime Records Bureau.

Yet, this is likely just the tip of the iceberg, with countless cases shrouded in societal stigma.

The incident draws parallels with the 2012 Nirbhaya case that sparked nationwide protests and reforms, including the death penalty for rape.

However, conviction rates remain dismally low, with cases languishing for years in India’s overburdened judicial system. The frequency of such crimes, coupled with the lack of effective implementation of laws and societal change, underscores a systemic failure to protect women.

A disturbing pattern and societal denial

Tragically, the Dumka survivor’s ordeal is part of an unsettling pattern of sexual violence targeting foreign nationals in India.

In 2019 alone, the Indian government reported 36 cases of rape/sexual assault against foreigners, as per Reuters data. Countless more likely went unreported.

“To deny that India has [this] problem is to deny all of our lived experiences,” said Madhura Rao, a food systems scholar who grew up deeply distrusting men in Indian public spaces due to pervasive harassment.

Sohni Chakrabarti, an academic, echoed this, writing; “I don’t know a single woman who has not faced some form of harassment or worse while in India.”

Yet, instead of introspection, certain voices have sought to dismiss or deny these disturbing accounts.

Rekha Sharma, chairperson of the National Commission for Women (NCW), lashed out at writer David Josef Volodzko for sharing observations about the “level of sexual aggression” he witnessed in India, accusing him of “defaming the whole country.”

Such responses are emblematic of the issue – a reluctance to acknowledge the deeply rooted problem of sexual violence and misogyny. Dismissing lived experiences as “defamation” hinders effective solutions.

Gender-based violence is often viewed as solely a women’s issue rather than a broader societal concern in India, hindering implementation of measures to address it, notes activist Amba Daruwalla.

“We have seen some positive changes, particularly in media representation of women. However, ensuring women’s safety remains a significant challenge, particularly in communities where cultural norms restrict women’s mobility,” she said.

Activists cite the glaring lack of comprehensive data as a significant obstacle, with authorities seemingly hesitant or unwilling to acknowledge the full extent of the issue.

A reckoning and a wake-up call 

Last year, as part of the global #MeToo movement, India witnessed weeks of protests by top women wrestlers bravely exposing alleged sexual abuse by their federation head, demanding his resignation and a thorough inquiry.

Previous high-profile incidents, such as the rape of a British woman in Goa and the gang rape of a Danish tourist in Delhi, had brought global attention to the issue of women’s safety in India.

The Jharkhand High Court aptly noted how “sex-related crimes against foreign women tarnish the image of India across the globe.” But the true cost transcends reputational damage – it erodes India’s social fabric and purported values.

As the Dumka case investigation continues, India must undertake collective introspection. The battle demands rejecting entrenched patriarchal norms enabling heinous acts and fostering zero tolerance for sexual violence.

While the swift ₹10 lakh compensation to the Dumka survivor is commendable, no amount can undo her trauma. The High Court’s suo motu cognizance underscores urgency for justice, but true solace lies in systemic change.

As the survivor expressed gratitude amid unimaginable pain, her words resonated: “The penalties are harsh…anyone doing this should think twice.”

Yet, if Indians can collectively celebrate triumphs, should they not also feel collective shame when guests in their land are violated?

The Dumka gang-rape tarnishes India’s conscience, demanding a unified stand to protect all women. As the nation grapples with this horror, will it rise to confront its demons, or allow this stain to fester?