A few days before the end of the 2013, Time magazine revealed that an article called 'India's Rape Epidemic' was its ninth most popularly read news story globally that year. In a tragic demonstration of exactly why, just a few days later, on the last day of the year, the world watched in horror as a sixteen year old girl died of her burns after she had been set on fire. She had been gang raped twice, the second time because she had dared to file a police report for the first. It was when she had refused drop criminal proceedings after her second rape, that youths directly or indirectly linked to her attack set her on fire.
Whilst the world ran with Time's story that there was an epidemic of violence against women in India, I was being forced to gain a deeper and more intimate understanding of the issues than most. I had found myself co authoring a book about social justice in India with Emeritus Prof. in Economics Radha Sinha, and I was deeply engaged in writing a chapter exploring female agency, emancipation and autonomy in India.
What I learned was that India's violence against women problem was no overnight epidemic. This was, and still is, a long running, slow killing disease that has been eating away at India from the inside, for at least as long as the last forty years since crime records have been collected. India's 2005/6 National Family and Health Survey-3 (NHFS-3) found that 40% of Indian women reported experiencing spousal physical and sexual violence, 19% of them within the last twelve months. Amongst the types of violence they experienced, 10% of married and 25% of separated or divorced women reported incidents of sexual violence, which included being forced to have sexual intercourse or perform other sexual acts against their will. Over 95% of the time, the sexual violence was committed by either their current or ex partner. In the same survey, amongst women not in intimate relationships, 26% of abusers were relatives of the girls, followed by 22% being a friend, 19% being a current or ex boyfriend and a shocking 15% being strangers.
As I poured over this information in the first weeks of 2014, news hit that an all male village council had ordered the gang-rape to two girls in West Bengal. I recalled in tears the past year of research on India: starting with the tragic rape and then death of Jyoti Singh in Dec 2012 to the rape of an American tourist in June 2013 by three men; the gang-rape of a Swiss tourist in August; in December 2013 eight men gangraped a Dutch tourist - and in between my full notebook of headlines documenting one national case after another.
I wanted to know - where did husbands, partners, relatives, friends and even complete strangers acquire the sense of masculine entitlement to a woman's body that made the frequency of these attacks so possible? What did India not understand about a woman's right absolute right to bodily integrity?
I didn't need to look too far for answers. Exercising or respecting female agency and female sexual autonomy are ideas that appear to be practically foreign to the prevalent national psyche. Nowhere is this more harrowingly clear than on the government's stance on marital rape.
Various observers, from the UN's Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women to organizations like Human Rights Watch have decried the Indian government's refusal to recognize marital rape as a statutory offense. After global outrage sparked Jyoti Singh's rape in Delhi 2012, the Indian government appointed a former Chief Justice, Justice Verma, to submit a report on remedying the wave of violence against women. Amongst the report's most urgent recommendations was the directive to recognize rape within marriage as a criminal offense. This, said the report, was critical to move the nation towards recognizing the right of every woman to complete sexual autonomy at all times and towards recognition of independent female agency. But for the government of India, these concepts were thought too radical to be afforded legal status. In a move that shocked and saddened me as I researched it, as it had activists when it was announced, the government ignored the Justice Verma report, refused to recognize criminalize marital rape and instead passed an 'Ordinance on Sexual Violence' in Feb 2013 that was criticized by the UN, Amnesty and Human Rights Watch as a failure to do anything to protect all its female citizens.
The implications extend far beyond the 48.9% (287m) of Indian women who are married. The failure to criminalize marital rape sends a message to all Indian men that sexual trespass is their right. The dangers of this kind of wrong thinking are felt by all women navigating India, nationals and tourists alike - making India the fourth most dangerous place to be a woman in the world.
So while the PM of India was standing in Central Park quoting Star Wars as if he's one of the good guys, I couldn't help feeling a betrayal knowing what I know: the uncomfortable and inconvenient truth is that by refusing to recognize marital rape as a statutory offense, the government of India is not only condoning a culture in India of masculine entitlement to a woman's body, it is effectively protecting it by law.
In fact the Indian government goes as far as to extend this form of masculine entitlement to men to such a degree that it allows them to have sex with a girl as young as fifteen (with or without her consent), if that girl is technically his wife - despite the fact that outside of marriage having sex with a fifteen year old would be rape (with or without her consent), and despite the fact that technically child marriage is illegal.
It's a very black stain against it that the government of India has refused to dismantle a legal framework that allows a man to have non consensual sex with any woman (whatever his relationship to her), or to dismantle a legal framework that allows a man to legally have sex (consensual or not) with a fifteen year old child.
It is baffling that the Indian government would ask a female citizen her marital relationship to the accused first, were she to report a rape, rather than automatically extend her legal rights and protection.
Until both these vehicles for legitimized violence against women are taken off the table, the likelihood that India will actually reshape its attitude towards female sexual autonomy, agency and emancipation remains slim, and the safety of every one of its female citizens and visitors remains compromised.
A woman's right to bodily integrity, female sexual autonomy, female agency and freedom for girls from sexual exploitation all fundamentally inform the fuller lexicon and dialogue around global citizenry. Alarmingly, what I don't see - a year and more into writing a book that touches on all these issues - is any Indian leadership that even speaks this language.