India’s national shame

Few acts are as violent, invasive and scarring as rape. Compounding the injury is the abhorrent treatment all too often afforded rape victims. Far too frequently they are greeted with suspicion and insinuations — if not outright allegations — that a vicious assault is somehow their fault.

The criminal justice bureaucracy is often indifferent if not utterly hostile to the victim. The entire process is degrading and insulting.

That said, few such incidents have commanded the international attention that followed the brutal gang rape and murder of a young Indian woman in New Delhi last month.

The story is horrific: A 23-year-old student and her male friend were returning home after watching a movie. Unable to get a taxi, they boarded an unlicensed bus occupied by six men, all drunk.

The men attacked the woman and her friend as the bus cruised the city — reportedly even going through several police checkpoints — beating and repeatedly raping her, even violating her with an iron bar. One of the assailants allegedly pulled her intestines out. The violence continued while the woman was unconscious.

Both victims were thrown from the bus and left in the street. The woman died in a hospital two weeks after the assault. The attacks have triggered furious protests in India, where violence against women is endemic.

A United Nations report last year identified India as the world’s most dangerous country for female children. Almost twice as many girls die between the ages of 1 and 5 as boys. The ratio of 100 girls for every 56 boys reflects the preference for male over female children. This is on top of an estimated 8 million abortions of female fetuses over the past decade.

Surviving is not the end of their troubles. In 2011, 35,565 women and girls were kidnapped, 42,968 were molested, 8,570 were sexually harassed and 99,135 suffered cruelty at the hands of their husbands or relatives, including more than 8,600 “dowry deaths,” or killings of brides by their new families because their dowries were deemed insufficient.

The number of reported rapes in India rose from 2,487 in 1971 to 24,206 in 2011; there were 630 reported incidents of rape in New Delhi alone last year, up from 572 reported in 2011.

Troubling though those numbers are, experts believe it is only the tip of the iceberg. They reckon that only 10 percent of such assaults are reported to the authorities.

That phenomenon exists around the world, but it is especially pronounced in India. One survey showed half of Delhi’s senior police believe that half of rape victims are either prostitutes or had invited the attacks.

Consistent with that skepticism are statistics that show that only a little more than a quarter of rape cases — 28 percent — lead to convictions. After widespread protests sprang up following the incident, one member of Parliament, the son of the country’s president, dismissed the demonstrators as “dented and painted” women seeking two minutes of fame. He later retracted the statement.

The outrage in India is aimed at this attitude and the contempt for women that it creates. It is ironic then that much of the violence comes from a belief that women are the repository of a family’s honor.

This attitude demands “purity,” and in its perceived absence, any form of violence against women is justified. That “purity” is ever more difficult to maintain as Indian society modernizes and women take on more independent lives.

The defense lawyer for three of the accused men, who claims he has never heard of a “respected lady” being raped in India, is blaming the victims for the assault, saying that the unmarried couple should not have been out together at night.

No matter what the cultural context, no country should allow such violence to be used against any of its people. There is no justification — ever — for “teaching her a lesson,” as the woman’s assailants reportedly confessed to doing. Indian officials appear to be getting the message.

Five of the assailants were formally charged with gang rape and murder last week. The sixth accused, and reportedly the most violent of the group, is under 18 and will be tried separately in a juvenile court.

Murder charges carry the death penalty. The accused are said to have admitted to torturing and raping the woman, although three of them have pleaded not guilty.

The case is expected to be processed by a new fast-track court that was established in response to the crime. While we join the queue demanding justice, the procedures must also be fair and legal. Lynch mobs rarely dispense justice.

If this horrific incident forces India to change the way it treats its women, then something good will have come of a tragedy. Two panels headed by retired judges have been established by the government to recommend measures to ensure women’s safety. Clearing the enormous backlog of cases of violence is a first step, as is updating an archaic criminal code.

Some conservatives will no doubt insist that this is a cultural matter and that outsiders lack the requisite sensitivity needed to understand India’s position. That is nonsense.

The best proof is that it is Indian women who are leading the protests, and who demand more from their own society and their own state. They rallied around the victim of last month’s attack because they found it easy to identify with her.

She was a young woman, studying to better herself and her life prospects, out for a quiet evening with a friend. For that she was punished. India’s women deserve better.