Sex and the city

Aug 21, 2012, 07:48 IST | Shinibali Mitra Saigal

A spate of sexually violent crimes have rocked the city. Where is all this pent-up rage coming from, finds out Shinibali Mitra Saigal

When it comes to sexual violence things can’t surely get any worse for Indian women. An international men and gender equality survey, conducted last year, exposed that India not only ranked last on the gender equitable scale but also that they were the worst offenders when it came to sexual violence. The IMAGES study (International Men and Gender Equality Survey), which had been conducted by researchers from the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW in US and India) and Instituto Promundo in Brazil, across six developing countries threw up startling statistics like 24% of Indian men had committed sexual violence and 20% had forced their partners to have sex with them.

Even as the city still reels under the shock of the sexually violent crime against Mumbai-based corporate lawyer Pallavi Purakayastha, the ICRW statistics don’t really come as a surprise. In fact closer home, late last year Akshara, a Mumbai-based women’s resource centre, had conducted a study on 4,255 women to identify the concept of safety that women experience in public spaces in Mumbai. The results once again drew attention to the plight of women in the city. Some of the key highlights of the survey showed that 95% women had experienced sexual harassment and almost 52% had experienced street sexual harassment after dark.

Power Play
Dr Nandita Shah, co-director, Akshara explains that one of the biggest problems why sexual violence occurs is that men think they can get away with it. Shah says that often, while surveying college students, they have found that boys think it is fun to eve-tease and harass the opposite sex because it is a way to break ice. “If we have started paying attention to ragging as a crime we need to do the same with eve teasing too,”adds Shah.

Dr Sarala Bijapurkar, Associate Professor of Sociology at the KJ Somaiya College of Arts and Commerce, feels that it is through sexual violence that men seek to re-establish power over women. “Men perceive a threat, especially as women have come to occupy the public space that was exclusively the domain of males. Through sexually assaulting women in the public domain, men hope women will retreat to the private sphere of the home and the family and it is through sexual violence that men attempt to silence women,” she says.

According to Dr Ritu Dewan, Professor, Centre for Women’s Studies / Gender Economics, Department of Economics, University of Mumbai, violence against women has always existed. “It is a reflection of the feudal values that permeate our society but has been getting worse in the last couple of decades for two reasons: resurgence in feudal values and increasing economic and political chaos.”

Seema Hingorany, psychologist, reveals that almost 60% of the cases of trauma who come to her for counselling are sexual in nature. “Violence is all about showing that women are the weaker class and they deserve to be treated badly if they don’t comply with what the man wants,” she says.

Often it is asked whether sexual repression results in sexual violence. Dewan says that repression may be one of the reasons for violence but not the only one. One of the main reasons for the increasing violence is the dramatic decline in sex ratios. “The present paradigm of growth denies women not only their rightful place in society, but even their right to exist.” In fact, it has also been noticed that sexual violence differs in the urban and rural setting. In rural India, Dewan says, the violence is linked to rural beliefs that are in resurgence especially in relation to caste and religious issues. “In urban cities violence is also a reflection of the increasing frustration against not being able to attain in the context of global aspirations.”

Dr Rajiv Anand, psychiatrist and marriage counsellor, says that in the rural context sexual oppression or sexual violence is a man’s right and society will even pass it as a socially acceptable norm. “In urban areas the violence is more polished and men use coercion, blackmail, mind games and exploit the gullibility of women.”

An interesting highlight of the ICRW study was that while Indian men may be sexually and physically violent, they did not usually exhibit any deviant or criminal behaviour outside and in the social space. Shah says that this dichotomy arises because men don’t even realise the contradiction. “Men feel that beating or assaulting women is their right.” Anand feels that traditionally men have always hankered for power. “Therefore he feels tempted to tease a poor girl, or molest her if he gets an opportunity. He might not have a criminal background but he thinks it is manly to express his masculine instinct in a way, which he thinks that all men should do.” According to Bijapurkar men exhibit this contradictory behaviour because they view women as ‘things’ and ‘objects’.

Help at Hand
Countering sexual violence is not an easy task; but if women want to change their lives Hingorany advises that they need to learn self-defence. “Also, women should never have a negative belief that they deserve this kind of treatment. Many cases go unreported and they need report these crimes.” Bijapurakar adds that to counter assault, socialisation practices need to be defined and societal attitudes need to change.

Shah says that it is important to create awareness. She says that Akshara, along with The Special Cell for Women and Children and Indian Centre for Human Rights and Law, approached the Thane Police and got a police control room phone line dedicated to street sexual harassment.

That apart Shah informs about the 103 helpline which was launched by the Mumbai Police along with the Campaign against Violence against Women and Girls (VAW Campaign) for women, children and senior citizens. “This helpline is effective and a police van reaches in no time once the call is made. Women need to know that help is only a phone call away,” she adds. 

Key highlights of a survey conducted by Akshara, a women’s resource centre, on the concept of safety women experience in public spaces:
95% women have experienced sexual harassment
11% women have faced sexual assault or rape
19% women have faced violent physical attack
46% women have faced sexual harassment inside BEST buses
52% of women have experienced street sexual harassment after dark

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