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India gang rapes rise despite growing awareness

The Washington Post

The chauffeur’s boss was out of town, so the driver called a friend and said “Let’s have some fun” — which police say meant finding a woman to rape.

Hopping into a luxury car, the two soon spotted their victim — a young software engineer leaving a shopping mall. They lured her into the car by pretending it was a taxi, police said, took her to a remote spot and raped her with such ferocity that she bled for hours.

Much has changed in India since the December night last year when another young woman was fatally gang-raped and murdered in New Delhi, a case that shocked the country and sparked protests against abuse. Parliament passed stricter laws on rape and sexual harassment. Police have become more sympathetic to women. Help lines have been flooded with calls.

But rapes by gangs of young men have continued with a disturbing frequency, even though the men convicted in the New Delhi case were sentenced to death by hanging. The reasons behind it are wide-ranging, from rising economic inequality to an inefficient judicial system.

But one thing is clear: There is still a widespread sense of impunity among aggressors.

After the two Hyderabad men were arrested, they admitted having sex with the woman but showed little remorse, police said.

“I said, ‘Are you not scared?’ ” recalled C.V. Anand, the police chief of the Cyberabad region, a large district that rings the central city. “They said, ‘We never felt we would get caught. She would not say anything. Indian women can’t come out about such things.’ “

Just as Anand was giving his interview, TV news flashed photos of another gang rape nearby — a teenage girl had been held captive by two older youths and assaulted repeatedly for 10 days. High-profile attacks have occurred in other cities, including Mumbai and Bangalore, as well as in rural states such as Har-yana.

“Unless the mentality changes, this is not going to go away,” said Purnima Nagaraja, a consultant psychiatrist who has worked with hundreds of rape survivors in the area.

In the last 20 years, Hyderabad has grown from a sleepy town to a thriving hub that built landscaped business parks to attract IT companies such as IBM and Facebook. Nagaraja said common sexual misconduct has worsened from “eve-teasing” — the term used in India for sexual taunting — to rape and, in the last five years or so, gang rapes.

She attributes this trend — where packs of young men rape for sport — to economic disparity between the rich and the poor and the move of uneducated migrants from rural areas to cities, where they often find themselves unmoored after village life where males hold sway.

“In India, men rape because it’s a manly thing to subjugate the weaker sex,” Nagaraja said. “Our culture puts so much emphasis on ‘being a man,’ which creates huge insecurities for men as they see women’s status rising in society.”

As cellphone use has spread, the availability of pornography and violent movies also has increased. Nagaraja has studied more than 2,000 young men the ages of 15 and 25 and says that 58 percent of them watch sadomasochistic pornography.

And India, which has long favored its sons, has a widening gender gap as a result of the widespread practice of aborting female babies. Like other developing countries, India has a young population struggling to find decent work.

“There are too many men with nothing to do, just hanging around all day, passing comments on women,” said Uma Sharma, an activist in a New Delhi slum. “We thought all the protests after last year’s gang rape will instill fear in men. We watched it on television. But nothing has changed. This gets worse every day.”

She and other new activists marched in outrage to the police station after investigators failed to file charges after a 15-year-girl was sexually assaulted; the activists prevailed but got little support from the men in their community.

“When we go for the women’s committee meeting, they mock us,” she said. ” ‘Just because you have a committee, you think you can change the world?’ ” they say.

In rural areas, lower-caste women are often raped by members of the dominant caste. And in recent months, victims have accused high-profile men — from a former judge to the editor of a well-known magazine — of sexual misconduct.

Although India passed tighter sexual assault laws this year, prosecutions can be agonizingly slow. Hoping to speed things up, the government created fast-track rape courts in New Delhi, but they are overflowing. As of November, these courts had convicted 178 attackers and acquitted 407, with more than 1,700 cases pending.

Their conviction rates — around one-third — are not any higher than the regular courts, according to the city’s prosecution agency.

“It takes so long to convict the guilty,” said Prabhans Mahato, 32, the father of a 5-year-old girl who earlier this year was held for 40 hours and raped repeatedly by a neighbor. “People feel there is no law at all.”