Sharing the op-ed I wrote for The Asian Age & Deccan  Chronicle

Feb 06 : What is more terrifying? That a nine-year-old Russian girl was raped in Goa while on a beach holiday with her mother or that the Russians are furious and Goa risks losing its fun-in-the-sand image and precious tourist dollars?

If you scan the statements made by our various politicians, the trend is troubling. First, a brief recap of what happened: a nine-year-old Russian girl was allegedly raped Republic Day evening while she was bathing in the sea near a beach in north Goa. It was a calculated operation by a sleazy duo, one of whom chatted up the mother lounging in the beach, while the other pounced on the hapless girl bathing in the sea.

A furious Russian embassy has warned that it might issue a travel advisory asking its citizens not to go to Goa. This has triggered a familiar blame game. The Union tourism ministry is hollering at the state government and asking for details about what is being done to ensure safety of tourists. Girija Vyas, the National Commission of Women chair, is angry and making sure Panaji hears her loud and clear when she speaks about the need to have better security for tourists. The Goan government, caught on the wrong foot again, is on the defensive. The big idea coming out of it is a ban on billboards showing bikini-clad women.

The good news from Goa, as I write, is that the collective pressure pushed the cops to speed up the chase. The suspect was intercepted and the Russian girl has identified her rapist. But what worries me immensely is the overwhelming focus on the tourism industry through the verbal jousts rather than on the rape or on the victim. Right from the start, it has been the primordial fear of what the rest of the world may think, the fear of what the Russians may do, the dent in Goa’s don’t-worry-be-happy image, possible political and diplomatic fall-outs and of losing out on the tourist pie that rallied our politicos at the state and national level.

What if the nine-year-old was not a foreign tourist and what if her parents were too insignificant or powerless to cause a commotion which alone gets the law enforcement agencies moving in this country? What would happen then? How would the rape, blame and tourism game play out a year from now when the incident is off the front pages, and the mother and daughter duo are back in Russia?

This is not the first time that the touristy image of Goa as an idyllic strip of sand along the Arabian Sea has taken a knock. Two years ago, a 15-year-old British girl, Scarlett Keeling, was raped and murdered in Goa. There have been a string of sexual assaults on tourists, especially white women, in this coastal state, each time igniting a discussion about possible loss of tourist dollars. Undoubtedly, Goa has to do much more to protect tourists but the problem goes beyond what happens to tourists and what other countries think of us each time such shameful incidents occur.

Goa’s sandy beaches are not the only places rapists strike. Rape is on the rise across the country, and despite all the big talk, there is precious little being done to tackle the problem or to help the growing numbers of traumatised victims.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), there were 20,737 reported rape cases in 2007 in India (the latest year for which we have official crime statistics). This is up from 19,348 in 2006 and a jump of 733.8 per cent from 1953 when 2,487 rapes were reported. Disturbingly, 9.5 per cent (1,972) of the total number of rape victims in 2007 were girls under 15 years of age, while 15.2 per cent (3,152) were teenaged girls (15-18 years). Madhya Pradesh, which has a significant SC/ST population, has the dubious distinction of the state with the highest number of reported rape cases.

These are official figures. Most rapes go unreported because of a medley of reasons — family pressure, the manner of the police, the unreasonably long and unjust process and application of law and the resulting consequences for the victim in this society.

What is our response to this shocking state of affairs and in addressing the glaring systemic gaps that rapists leverage?

Firstly, the law itself needs to be overhauled. Academics working on this issue for years like Jawaharlal Nehru University professor Pratixa Bakshi points to India’s archaic law on rape. It reflects a lack of any real understanding of the problem. Only penile penetration is recognised as rape. The victim must prove that the rapist sexually penetrated her in order to get a conviction. NCRB’s statistics show that the conviction rate in rape is only 26 per cent, which means that three quarters of those suspected of rape do not actually get convicted.

Secondly, there is also little official recognition of the mental trauma that a victim of rape goes through, Bakshi points out. State-sponsored research usually steers clear of sexual violence against children and women and hardly any resources are allocated for psychological support and counselling for a child or woman who has been raped.

Rapes are on the rise because rapists know they can get away. Rapists feel secure in a culture that blurs the issue by blaming the victim when she is already crushed. Goa’s tourism bosses think a bikini-clad woman on a billboard is a provocation for sexual violence. Lawyers for disgraced cop S.P.S. Rathore, who molested 14 year-old Ruchika, driving her to suicide, used innuendos to tarnish the dead teenager’s character. And so on.

At a time when everything else is being commodified, why can’t safety become a commodity and provided as a service? We need a new look at the rape law, a fast track for legal redressal of rape cases, more and better policing and more resources for psychological counselling for rape victims.

Rapists do not take their cue from hoardings. The vast majority of rape victims in India were not wearing bikinis when they were attacked. Perverse statements which imply that rape victims must somehow share the blame with the rapists must stop. Globalising India wears the cloak of modernity but its innerwear is patriarchy. That has to change. Only then will the sandy beaches of Goa and the rest of the country will be safe for women and girls, tourists and natives.

By Patralekha Chatterjee

Patralekha Chatterjee writes on development issues in India and emerging economies and can be reached at patralekha.chatterjee@gmail.com

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