In the popular imagination, rapists are imagined to be dangerous strangers who appear out of the blue to pounce on unsuspecting women and children. It's this image that encourages politicians to tell woman what they should wear and when they should come home, as if to suggest closeted behaviour could keep them safe. The data, however, suggests something else entirely: the vast majority of rapes are committed by people whom the target already knows.
According to figures from India's National Crime Records Bureau, only 4.5% of rape cases recorded in 2015 involved a perpetrator that the complainant was unable to identify. In 95.5% of cases, the offenders were persons known to the complainant. This further buffets the case of those who have argued for years that the image of a rapist ought not to be the violent stranger, but someone who is known: a neighbour or even a relative.
“It is popular culture which largely contributes in shaping up this misconception that most rapes are committed by strangers,” said Mumbai-based lawyer Persis Sidhwa who is associated with an NGO named Majlis Foundation that provides socio-legal counselling to victims of domestic and sexual violence.
Paradoxically, the media seems to highlight the rarer instances in which the offenders are strangers, instead of highlighting the the cases in which a woman is sexually exploited – often repeatedly – by people known well to her.
“A lot has to be done in this area to break the stigma and ensure social and legal counselling to the victims who are subjected to immense pressure from within the family while or after reporting such cases," she said. "In fact, most of these cases come on record accidentally – through hospitals informing police or victim confiding to some other person very close to her.”
Of the 34,651 cases of rapes reported in India in 2015, only 1,553 were such in which the offenders were not known to the complainants, according to the NCRB data. As Rukmini Shrinivasan in The Hindu has shown, the number of cases registered does not tell the whole story, since a large portion of these have in the past turned out to be instances in which parents have registered rape charges against consenting couples.
Still, the numbers are significant because they confirm what those who work with matters of sexual abuse have long affirmed, that stranger rape is only a tiny portion of the problem.
While the total number of rape cases reported in 2015 declined by 7.38% from the previous year, cases in which the offenders were known to the complainant increased from 86% to 95.5%.
“This increase in figures is largely because of a change in the mentality ,” said Special Commissioner of Delhi Police Taj Hassan. "A large number of women from different strata of the society today approach the police and report cases of sexual assault despite the offenders being known to them, even when they are family members."