Yes, India has a rape problem but is it really a no-go for women?

Yonden Lhatoo questions the perception that India is the most dangerous country in the world for women, while acknowledging it needs serious soul-searching and reform to improve its track record on protecting them

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 June, 2018, 4:41pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 July, 2018, 10:41am

“I don’t think I’m ever going to India – I don’t want to end up getting raped,” a young, well-heeled local woman told me at a recent social gathering in Hong Kong when the subject of travelling to the subcontinent came up.

Having often come across this kind of phobia before, my ready reply was constructed along the lines of, “Yes, India has a rape problem. But you do realise, don’t you, that the vast majority of women there are living normal lives, and they’re not being sexually assaulted as we speak? In fact, millions of women visit India every year and return to their home countries unmolested.”

I have to say such paranoid perceptions about India, though grossly exaggerated and borderline xenophobic, are not entirely unjustified, given the sensational social and mainstream media coverage of some truly horrific rape cases in the country.

A new report out this week listed India as the world’s most dangerous country for women due to the high risk of being subjected to sexual violence and forced into slave labour. The survey of some 550 “experts on women’s issues” by the Thomson Reuters Foundation ranked India as worse than Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia and Saudi Arabia.

Really? Maybe I should suggest to that young woman who’s terrified of visiting India to try Syria instead? Syria, the worst man-made disaster zone since the second world war, where armies of the most abominable men in the terrorism business have wantonly murdered, raped and made sex slaves of thousands of women.

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Or she could check out Afghanistan as a safer alternative to India. Afghanistan, where Taliban terrorists still on the rampage run a sort of reverse #MeToo campaign that essentially entails brutal death for women perceived to be stepping out of line. Plus, they have a medieval system that allows rape victims to be punished for adultery or forced to marry their rapists.

And I guess Saudi Arabia merits a better ranking than India with its quantum leaps forward in women’s rights, such as the recent lifting of a ban on female drivers, never mind that it’s the 21st century.

The biggest problem with surveys of this ilk is they are based on perception over fact. If you look at global rankings based on the aggregation of official statistics, using the number of rapes per 100,000 people in any country as a more accurate measure, India is never at the top and rarely in the top 10.

Don’t take my word for it. Just look up all the rape rankings out there and you may be surprised to see developed countries such as the United States and Britain regularly outperforming India.

By the way, the US was the only Western country that made it to the Thomson Reuters list – the rest were from Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

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I’m no apologist for India. I find it truly appalling that four cases of rape are reported to police every hour, and about 100 incidences of sexual assault every day. Many cases go unreported because of the shame, social stigma, fear of retaliation and lack of faith in the justice system.

There is no defending any of this. For all its efforts to assert itself on the global stage with its economic and political clout as well as through the soft power of cultural exports such as yoga, India is held back by its abject failure to get a grip on this.

But let’s not get carried away with completely unnecessary fearmongering. I have many female friends and relatives scattered across India and I’m happy to report they’re all safe and sound, living perfectly normal lives.

So, ladies, don’t be afraid of travelling to India. Go see the Taj Mahal – it’s something everyone ought to do at least once in their lifetime.

But of course, be mindful of where you are and who you’re with, just like you would in New York or London. Never mind the scary surveys.

Yonden Lhatoo is the chief news editor at the Post