IN India, a
23-year-old student takes a bus home from a movie and is gang-raped and
assaulted so viciously that she dies two weeks later.
In Liberia, in West Africa, an aid group called More Than Me rescues a
10-year-old orphan who has been trading oral sex for clean water to survive.
In Steubenville, Ohio, high school football players are accused of repeatedly
raping an unconscious 16-year-old girl who was either drunk or rendered helpless
by a date-rape drug and was apparently lugged like a sack of potatoes from party
And in Washington, our members of Congress show their concern for sexual
violence by failing to renew the Violence Against Women Act, a landmark law
first passed in 1994 that has now expired.
Gender violence is one of the world’s most common human rights abuses. Women
worldwide ages 15 through 44 are more likely to die or be maimed because of male
violence than because of cancer, malaria, war and traffic accidents combined.
The World Health Organization has found that domestic and sexual violence
affects 30 to 60 percent of women in most countries.
In some places, rape is endemic: in South Africa, a survey found that 37 percent
of men reported that they had raped a woman. In others, rape is
institutionalized as sex trafficking. Everywhere, rape often puts the victim on
trial: in one poll, 68 percent of Indian judges said that “provocative attire”
amounts to “an invitation to rape.”
Americans watched the events after the Delhi gang rape with a whiff of
condescension at the barbarity there, but domestic violence and sex trafficking
remain a vast problem across the United States.
One obstacle is that violence against women tends to be invisible and thus not a
priority. In Delhi, of 635 rape cases reported in the first 11 months of last
year, only one ended in conviction. That creates an incentive for rapists to
continue to rape, but in any case that reported number of rapes is delusional.
They don’t include the systematized rape of sex trafficking. India has, by my
reckoning, more women and girls trafficked into modern slavery than any country
in the world. (China has more prostitutes, but they are more likely to sell sex
On my last trip to India, I tagged along on a raid on a brothel in Kolkata,
organized by the International Justice Mission. In my column at the time, I
focused on a 15-year-old and a 10-year-old imprisoned in the brothel, and
mentioned a 17-year-old only in passing because I didn’t know her story.
My assistant at The Times, Natalie Kitroeff, recently visited India and tracked
down that young woman. It turns out that she had been trafficked as well — she
was apparently drugged at a teahouse and woke up in the brothel. She said she
was then forced to have sex with customers and beaten when she protested. She
was never allowed outside and was never paid. What do you call what happened to
those girls but slavery?
Yet prosecutors and the police often shrug — or worse. Dr. Shershah Syed, a
former president of the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Pakistan,
once told me: “When I treat a rape victim, I always advise her not to go to the
police. Because if she does, the police might just rape her again.”
In the United States, the case in Steubenville has become controversial partly
because of the brutishness that the young men have been accused of, but also
because of concerns that the authorities protected the football team. Some
people in both Delhi and Steubenville rushed to blame the victim, suggesting
that she was at fault for taking a bus or going to a party. They need to think:
What if that were me?
The United States could help change the way the world confronts these issues. On
a remote crossing of the Nepal-India border, I once met an Indian police officer
who said, a bit forlornly, that he was stationed there to look for terrorists
and pirated movies. He wasn’t finding any, but India posted him there to show
that it was serious about American concerns regarding terrorism and intellectual
property. Meanwhile, that officer ignored the steady flow of teenage Nepali
girls crossing in front of him on their way to Indian brothels, because modern
slavery was not perceived as an American priority.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has done a superb job trying to put these
issues on the global agenda, and I hope President Obama and Senator John Kerry
will continue her efforts. But Congress has been pathetic. Not only did it fail
to renew the Violence Against Women Act, but it has also stalled on the global
version, the International Violence Against Women Act, which would name and
shame foreign countries that tolerate gender violence.
Congress even failed to renew the landmark legislation against human
trafficking, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. The obstacles were
different in each case, but involved political polarization and paralysis. Can
members of Congress not muster a stand on modern slavery?
(Hmm. I now understand better the results of a new survey from Public Policy
Polling showing that Congress, with 9 percent approval, is less popular than
cockroaches, traffic jams, lice or Genghis Khan.)
Skeptics fret that sexual violence is ingrained into us, making the problem
hopeless. But just look at modern American history, for the rising status of
women has led to substantial drops in rates of reported rape and domestic
violence. Few people realize it, but Justice Department statistics suggest that
the incidence of rape has fallen by three-quarters over the last four decades.
Likewise, the rate at which American women are assaulted by their domestic
partners has fallen by more than half in the last two decades. That reflects a
revolution in attitudes. Steven Pinker, in his book “The Better Angels of Our
Nature,” notes that only half of Americans polled in 1987 said that it was
always wrong for a man to beat his wife with a belt or a stick; a decade later,
86 percent said it was always wrong.
But the progress worldwide is far too slow. Let’s hope that India makes such
violence a national priority. And maybe the rest of the world, especially our
backward Congress, will appreciate that the problem isn’t just India’s but also
India — One after the other, the men raped her. They had dragged the girl into a
darkened stone shelter at the edge of the fields, eight men, maybe more, reeking
of pesticide and cheap whiskey. They assaulted her for nearly three hours. She
was 16 years old.
When it was over, the men threatened to kill her if she told anyone, and for
days the girl said nothing. Speaking out would have been difficult, anyway,
given the hierarchy of caste. She was poor and a Dalit, the low-caste group once
known as untouchables, while most of the attackers were from a higher caste that
dominated land and power in the village.
It might have ended there, if not for the videos: her assailants had taken
cellphone videos as trophies, and the images began circulating among village men
until one was shown to the victim’s father, his family said. Distraught, the
father committed suicide on Sept. 18 by drinking pesticide. Infuriated, Dalits
demanded justice in the rape case.
“We thought, We lost my husband, we lost our honor,” the mother of the rape
victim said. “What is the point of remaining silent now?”
As in many countries, silence often follows rape in India, especially in
villages, where a rape victim is usually regarded as a shamed woman, unfit for
marriage. But an outcry over a string of recent rapes, including this one, in
the northern state of Haryana, has shattered that silence, focusing national
attention on India’s rising number of sexual assaults while also exposing the
conservative, male-dominated power structure in Haryana, where rape victims are
often treated with callous disregard.
In a rapidly changing country, rape cases have increased at an alarming rate,
roughly 25 percent in six years. To some degree, this reflects a rise in
reporting by victims. But India’s changing gender dynamic is also a significant
factor, as more females are attending school, entering the work force or
choosing their own spouses — trends that some men regard as a threat.
India’s news media regularly carry horrific accounts of gang rapes, attacks once
rarely seen. Sometimes, gangs of young men stumble upon a young couple — in some
cases the couple is meeting furtively in a conservative society — and then rape
the woman. Analysts also point to demographic trends: India has a glut of young
males, some unemployed, abusing alcohol or drugs and unnerved by the new
visibility of women in society.
“This visibility is seen as a threat and a challenge,” said Ranjana Kumari, who
runs the Center for Social Research in New Delhi.
In Haryana, the initial response to the rape after it was disclosed ranged from
denial to denouncing the media to blaming the victim. A spokesman for the
governing Congress Party was quoted as saying that 90 percent of rape cases
begin as consensual sex. Women’s groups were outraged after a village leader
pointed to teenage girls’ sexual desire as the reason for the rapes.
“I think that girls should be married at the age of 16, so that they have their
husbands for their sexual needs, and they don’t need to go elsewhere,” the
village leader, Sube Singh, told IBN Live, a news channel. “This way rapes will
The most vulnerable women are poor Dalits, the lowest tier of the social
structure. Of 19 recent rape cases in Haryana, at least six victims were Dalits.
One Dalit teenager in Haryana committed suicide, setting herself afire, after
being gang-raped. Another Dalit girl, 15, who was mentally handicapped, was
raped in Rohtak, according to Indian news media accounts, the same district
where a 13-year-old girl was allegedly raped by a neighbor.
“If you are a poor woman who is raped, you cannot even imagine a life where
there will be justice,” Kalpana Sharma, a columnist, wrote recently in The
Hindu, a national English-language newspaper. “If you are a poor woman and a
Dalit, then the chances of justice are even slimmer.”
Haryana is one of India’s most entrenched bastions of feudal patriarchy. The
social preference for sons has contributed to a problem of some couples aborting
female fetuses, leaving Haryana with the most skewed gender ratio in India, 861
females for every 1,000 males. Politically, the upper Jat caste largely controls
a statewide network of unelected, all-male councils known as khap panchayats,
which dominate many rural regions of the state.
Elected leaders are reluctant to confront the khaps, given their ability to turn
out voters, and often endorse their conservative social agenda, in which women
are subservient to men. Khaps have sought to ban women from wearing bluejeans or
using cellphones. One khap member, Jitender Chhatar, blamed fast food for the
rise in rape cases, arguing that it caused hormonal imbalances and sexual urges
in young women. Mr. Singh, who suggested lowering the legal marriage age, is
also a khap leader.
“They are working the blame-the-victim theory,” said Jagmati Sangwan, president
of the Haryana chapter of the All-India Democratic Women’s Association. “They
are diverting attention from the crime and the criminals, and the root causes.”
Yet public anger is clearly bubbling up. Small protests have been staged across
the state, including one this month in the town of Meham, where about 100 men
and women picketed the district police headquarters over the rape of a
17-year-old girl. They waved signs demanding “Arrest Rapists!” and “Justice for
Women” and chanted “Down with Haryana Police!”
Here in Dabra, about 100 miles from the Pakistan border, villagers say there is
no khap panchayat but rather an elected village council where the leadership
position, known as sarpanch, is reserved for a woman under nationwide
affirmative action policies. Yet the male-dominated ethos prevails. The current
sarpanch is the wife of a local Jat leader, who put her forward to circumvent
the restriction. During an interview with the husband, the official sarpanch sat
silently in the doorway, her face covered by a gauzy scarf.
“No, no,” she answered when asked to comment, as she pointed to her husband.
“He’s the sarpanch. What’s the point in talking to me?”
The gang-rape of the 16-year-old girl occurred on Sept. 9 but remained a secret
in the village until her father’s suicide. Dalits formed a committee to demand
justice, and roughly 400 people demonstrated outside the district police
headquarters, as well as at the hospital where the father’s body was being kept.
“We told them that unless you catch the suspects, we would not take the body,”
said a woman named Maya Devi. “We do not have land. We do not have money. What
we have is honor. If your honor is gone, you have nothing.”
Since then, the police have arrested eight men — seven of them Jats — who have
confessed to the attack. There are discrepancies; the victim says she was
abducted outside the village, while the suspects say they attacked her after
catching her having a tryst with a married man.
“She was raped against her will,” said B. Satheesh Balan, the district
superintendent of police. “There is no doubt.”
Officer Balan said villagers told the police that other local girls had also
been gang-raped at the same stone shelter, though no evidence was available.
Often, a girl’s family will hide a rape rather than be stigmatized in the
village. Even sympathizers of the teenage victim doubt she can assimilate back
“It will be difficult on her,” Ms. Devi said. “Now she is branded.”
In an interview at her grandparents’ home outside the village, the victim said
she believed other suspects remained at large, leaving her at risk. (Female
police officers have been posted at the house round-the-clock.) Yet she has
actively pushed the police and joined in the protests, despite the warnings by
“They threatened me and said they would kill my family if I told anyone,” she
Many Dalit girls drop out of school, but the victim was finishing high school.
Even in the aftermath of the rape, she took her first-term exams in economics,
history and Sanskrit. But she no longer wants to return to the village school
and is uncertain about her future.
“Earlier, I had lots of dreams,” she said. “Now I’m not sure I’ll be able to
fulfill them. My father wanted me to become a doctor. Now I don’t think I’ll be
able to do it.”