The Delhi gang rape of December 2012 had many effects: it triggered national outrage that spilled onto the streets, stricter rape laws and international media attention that gave India the reputation of being the rape capital of the world. But if this notoriety has hurt anyone’s national pride, Union Minister Maneka Gandhi has a soothing balm – in the form of some “perspective” and a few statistics quoted out of context.
On Monday, at a workshop for women journalists in Delhi, the minister for women and child development responded to concerns about rape in India by stating that India “ranked among the lowest four countries in the world” with regard to rape cases. The country with the highest rape rates was Sweden, and Gandhi claimed she actually quoted these rankings to a Swedish official she met two years ago.
Technically, Gandhi is not wrong. The data she referred to at the journalists’ workshop has been drawn from a 2012 United Nations report on crime statistics around the world. Sweden indeed tops the list of rape rates with 66.5 cases of reported rapes per 100,000 people, while India reports barely 2 rapes per 100,000 people.
Should this make Indian women feel safer, and Indian nationalists feel a bit better about themselves? Perhaps not before some basic fact-checking, and a moment’s reflection on how Maneka Gandhi just turned a real conversation about rape into a matter of petty inter-country competition.
According to Gandhi, the wide gap between Sweden and India with respect to rape is a result of India’s “zero tolerance towards rape”. While Indian newspapers report rape cases every day, she claimed, rape does not become big news in countries like Sweden.
Had Gandhi done a quick Google search, however, she would find her argument falling apart. The only reason why Sweden has the highest rape rates in the world is because it also has the world’s most expansive definition of rape.
Since 2005, Sweden’s rape laws make it mandatory to report every individual instance of violence against women as a separate case of rape. So if a woman claims her husband had raped her on 50 different occasions in a year, it would be recorded and reported as 50 cases of rape. In many other countries that define rape differently, this woman’s husband would be booked for rape in just one case.
In India, meanwhile, marital rape is not even considered a crime – and Gandhi herselfdoesn’t believe it should be.
International comparisons of rape rates are almost always misleading, because of inconsistencies in rape definitions, reportage, recording, prosecution and conviction. This disclaimer is mentioned in every international report on rape statistics. But in her attempt to make India look better than first-world Sweden, Gandhi seemed to have conveniently missed the context.
Is this a competition?
The bigger question is why India’s minister for women and child development is treating rape rates as an international competition. We don’t need to look at crime statistics to recognise that India has an undeniable rape problem. Like any overwhelmingly patriarchal society, India routinely condones the cultural attitudes that make rape acceptable.
Indian politicians have blamed rape on everything from jeans and cell phones to chow mein and the evergreen “boys will be boys” – anything to deflect blame from the actual rapist and his decision to rape. And every time, the politicians in question get away with nothing but temporary media indignation.
In police stations, hospitals and courtrooms, rape survivors are routinely greeted with scepticism, humiliated and publicly judged for their life choices. In colleges and universities, rape prevention measures often involve policing the movements and clothing of female students. And in millions of homes across the length and breadth of India, girls continue to be restricted for their safety, while boys are given a free rein to be aggressive, entitled and, well, “boys”.
Across the board, Indians are bombarded with the message that women are responsible for their own rapes if they don’t subscribe to the gender norms laid out for them. This is rape culture, and sitting smugly at the bottom of a flawed report on international rape rates will not make India any safer for women.