Americans are reading with horror as sexual assault after sexual assault unfolds in India. It’s easy to wonder, “What’s wrong with that country?” But we should be asking what’s wrong with the United States, too.
Rape and violence against women are a massive problem in India. According to the country's National Crime Record Bureau, crimes against women have increased by 7.1 percent since 2010. The number of rapes reported has also risen. Nearly one in three rape victims in India is under the age of 18. One in 10 are under 14. Every 20 minutes in India, a woman is raped.
And yet India only ranks third for the number of rapes reported each year. What country ranks first? The United States. In India, a country of over 1.2 billion people, 24,206 rapes were reported in 2011. The same year in the United States, a nation of 300 million, 83,425 rapes were reported. In the United States, every 6.2 minutes a woman is raped.
Even if sexual assault in India is dramatically underreported, which most likely it is, the statistical difference is still striking—as is our uniquely American inclination to dismiss such monstrous human rights violations as problems that other countries face. Not only is violence against women a global pandemic but the United States may be leading the pack.
Oh, but you think, women who've been sexually assaulted in America are better treated. Rape victims in India, especially in rural villages, are often subject to shaming and considered unfit for marriage. But meanwhile, in Steubenville, Ohio, two young men who were convicted of raping a 16-year-old girl too intoxicated to consent continue to be defended as upstanding football players while the reputation of the young woman is smeared. When the verdict was announced, a CNN reporter came close to portraying the rapists as passive victims: “These two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students, literally watched as they believed their lives fell apart.” Other media coverage seemed equally sympathetic to the perpetrators.
Meanwhile, the victim was blamed. Early on, one of the 19 coaches of the Steubenville High football team said the victim was just making up the rape. The victim and her family had to get police protection due to the level of threats against them. Two weeks ago, a prominent local activitist in Steubenville spoke about the “alleged victim” (even though the allegations had turned into a conviction) and suggested, according to a reporter, that the victim “might have been a willing participant”. Meanwhile, the woman who broke the story of the rape—she is a local blogger—has been harassed and threatened.
Isolated incident of smearing and shaming the victim? Afraid not. Just weeks after the Steubenville story broke, two high school football players in Torrington, Connecticut were accused of raping a 13-year-old girl. The response? Dozens of people from the town took to social media to berate and blame the 13-year-old accuser.
Mallika Dutt runs Breakthrough, an organization that works to build human rights culture in India and the United States. Dutt says the differences between the two countries are more perceived than real. “There’s an assumption that [in America] we’re more evolved, that we’re more civilized, that the status of women is waaaaay better than the status of women in India or any other part of the world,” says Dutt.
That's untrue, says Dutt, and the false comfort may do Americans more harm than good. “It's always easier to ascribe negative attributes to the other than to than yourself,” she says. But such denial means we focus on the problems elsewhere to the detriment of improving conditions here in the United States as well. Violence against women anywhere should be a reminder to scrutinize injustice everywhere, including right here at home.
The encouraging fact is that while the U.S. still ranks first in the world for reported rapes, the number is declining here while statistics suggest India is moving in the other direction. In the U.S. the rate of reported rapes decreased by over 12 percent between 2002 and 2011. Over the last two decades, rates of domestic violence have dropped by more than 50 percent. And while only half of Americans in 1987 said it is "always wrong" for a man to beat his wife with a belt or a stick, a decade later 86 percent said it is wrong. That’s progress. But from Dallas to Delhi and everywhere in between, there’s still much more progress to be made.
Sally Kohn is a writer, television pundit and communications consultant. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, New York Magazine, Salon, Reuters, USA Today, Politico and Time.
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