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Rituparna Chatterjee
Wednesday, October 31, 2012 at 17 : 56

Poverty and lack of privacy need not lead to rape


Everyone has an opinion on rape - which isn't a bad thing unless the opinion is used to over-simplify a subject so contentious that it can prove counter-productive if not handled with sensitivity. I was mostly baffled when I read Ford Foundation International Professor of Economics Abhijit Banerjee's column on rape in the Hindustan Times on Wednesday, titled 'It's time to get real'.

While Banerjee said he was not defending rape in his article, but the heinous act does form the basis of his argument that inequality of access to sex and privacy in urban India is a factor in sexual assaults. Read Banerjee's column here.

While I agree with Banerjee on some specific points stated in his column (the right to privacy, for example), I strongly feel taking an apologist's stance will not help tackle the menace. I have the following counter-arguments.

I can't state this often enough. Rape isn't always about sexual aggression. More often than not, it is the tool for establishing power over the victim. Rapists forcefully violate an individual's private space with intent to dominate.

Banerjee makes several valid points that can be discussed as individual problems that plague the society but they cannot be tied up in a cohesive theme to make a case for the cause for sexual violence. The in-your-face consumerism and public display of affection aren't reasons enough to justify the frustration of the have-nots who presumably assault men and women.

As Banerjee points out, in India the lack of low-cost urban housing is a genuine problem and privacy comes at a premium. But to infer that the lack of it breeds rapists is stretching the point a bit. How do you then account for global instances of rape, especially in developed nations like the United States?

A comparison of the 2007 data suggests that Delhi with 3.57 rapes per 1,00,000 people fared better in safety as compared to the safest city in the US - New York - which recorded 10.48 rapes per 1,00,000 people (according to FBI and NYPD's crime statistics).

I understand what Banerjee tries to imply when he says, "What are we doing as a society to reduce inequality of access to sex? I don't mean publicly provided brothels - though those are not unknown in history - but just the right to a normal conjugal life." But he grossly undermines the deeper social and economic causes that breed the malaise - lack of education, a complete lack of gender equality, our social mindset that moralizes a crime and further victimizes the target in the convoluted system of establishing blame. Add to that the complete lack of empathy in the men and women employed by the state to protect the victims.

It isn't about economic disparity either. Rape is violence and should be treated as such. Justifying rape in any way is indirectly admitting that we as social beings are incapable of controlling our base desires and present a potential threat to others as we live and breathe and go about our daily chores. The argument Banerjee makes indicates that those without access to sexual privacy are completely incapable of exercising their better judgements.

An international report found that worldwide the judicial system is often stacked against women who complain of sexual violence. "In the United States, for example, some states do not treat sexual misconduct by guards on women prisoners as a criminal offence. In Peru some women have had to deliver police summonses to their abusers, and in Pakistan police often refuse to register a complaint.

Forensic examination in some countries focuses solely on whether or not the victim was a virgin. In Jordan officials place women victims in prison, apparently for protective custody, and in most countries the moral standing of the victim is taken into account in the judicial system. One judge in Pakistan allegedly dismissed a case because he felt that the victim had not struggled enough," stated this report on sexual violence.

The crux of the matter is, we fail as a state if we cannot provide safety and security to the citizens. Rape should be treated like any other violent crime. You aren't asked if you were provoking the mugger when your purse gets snatched on the highway, so why do it to rape victims? Please, let's stop making excuses.


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More about Rituparna Chatterjee

In her 10 years in the media, Rituparna has worked both on the field as a reporter as well as off it, on the desk. Lover of cumin flavoured "authentic" Chinese food. God is watching but that's no compulsion to keep the desktop neat.