Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

A Long Way to Go

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, January 1, 2013 --  

Sexual predators run rampant in India for a simple reason: people let them.

The curiosity of the teenage boys who first approached us in Bangalore's botanical gardens seemed innocent enough. Asking permission for our picture, they showed great interest in my blond wife, an unusual sight in a land of a half billion Indian brunettes. There were lots of teenage boys traveling in groups, and as soon as they spotter her, predatory stares were soon followed by cell phones snapping photos.

We took refuge on a bench in the more sheltered bonsai garden, where fewer people could see us. But being stationary simply made us an easier target. Teenage boys approached from around the garden and a middle-aged man silently sidled up next to my wife to have an adolescent boy take his picture with her. He initially ignored my request for him to leave, then when I became louder and more forceful he mocked my voice and walked away. Unbelievably, a short and skinny young man then stood directly in my face in a vain attempt to intimidate me. I stared him down, yelling at him to leave us alone. Only when I asked my wife to get the police did he walk away.1

An Indian couple sitting next to us apologized, explaining that not all Indians are like that. I asked them how to best deal with the packs of boys preying upon my wife. "Just ignore them," the man said. Another blonde foreigner we met told us how quickly young men propositioned her as soon as her husband wasn't around. I stuck close so my wife didn't have to see for herself.

Of course, it is not just foreign tourists who are harassed by Indian men -- it is Indians who are the usual victims. Last week, a 23-year old woman died from injuries suffered by a gang rape by a pack of teenage boys on a public bus in New Delhi.2 The case has resulted in outrage from both Indians and people around the world, and spawned a reassessment of the rights of women in India.

Obviously, the harassment my wife experienced was insignificant compared to the violent attacks that Indian women often face. But it is indicative of a cultural problem that is rampant and worsening in India. The the packs of teenage boys were more numerous and the incidents more frequent and widespread than on a previous visit nine year earlier. The simple truth is that sexual predation is tolerated in India, a truth driven home by the widespread use of the term "eve teasing" in Indian English to describe harassing behavior. Activists in India and the West have called for greater police enforcement and harsh punishment in light of the bus attack.

But such a focus on justice as a path to progress is overly optimistic, because it fails to recognize just how bad things are in India. Official statistics count 572 rapes in New Delhi in 20113, but such figures are notoriously unreliable because so many cases go unreported. There is little chance of stepping up enforcement of abuse on women, when many police do not agree there is a problem at all. A hidden camera report by India TV News showed that New Delhi police are often the perpetrators of sexual harassment.4 Today's police cannot be the solution because they are part of the problem.

The widespread ill treatment of women in India is driven by many factors. The country's conservative culture and embracement of arranged marriage means that sexual outlets for young men are extremely limited, despite being bombarded with Western movies and television that flaunt liberal sexuality. For the millions of rural poor, most male, immigrants who arrive in India's cities each year, there is almost no hope of getting a bride, because of the country's skewed sex ratio. The younger generation in India was born after the invention of ultrasound technology that allows parents to abort females rather than raising them and paying their dowries. The 2011 Indian census showed only 934 girls for every 1000 boys.5 Put these things together, and you get a disaster: countless packs of poor young men desperately preying upon women.

Demographics aside, by far the most important factor in perpetuating the mistreatment of women in India is simply that people let it happen. Rather than confront the behavior of perpetrators the common solution is to enable women to live with it. New Delhi subway trains feature female-only cars where women can ride without being groped. And recall the recommendation by the Indian couple in the botanical gardens that my wife and I simply ignore harassment when it happens. Similar behavior in a crowded American park would likely prompt bystanders to speak up rather than recommend tolerance.

The strong public reaction to the Delhi bus tragedy provides a real opportunity for India to change its poisonous culture of sexual predation. Yes, stronger enforcement and harsh punishment has a role. But nothing will truly change until there is a consensus that abuse of women is unacceptable. Unfortunately, India has a long way to go.


1. Author's account of events in Bangalore's Lalbagh Gardens on November 14, 2012

2. Hindustan Times, Twitter Mourns Delhi Gangrape Victim, January 1, 2013

3. Times of India, Delhi Tops Rape Tally Among Metros, States, December 18, 2012

4. India TV, India TV Reality Check Reveals Rampant Eve-Teasing on Delhi Roads, December 19, 2012

5. Times of India, Dipping Child Sex Ratio Causes Concern, December 16, 2012