Traditionally in India the murder of women was a minor offence. Female infanticide was not made illegal until 1802 and is believed to be still practiced. It is not uncommon for rapists to escape punishment while their victims are ostracized. "Eve teasing" is an expression used to describe the act of harassing women on the street.

As of 2004, there were 20 million cases involving violence against women were waiting to be heard in Indian courts. Many of these cases go on for years and years and the conviction rate is very low.

"Men feel they have the right to strike women," one social worker told the New York Times. "The law hardly works, the police hardly work. In India, I think the kind of inequalities in the relationship between men and women are more visible and more deep than elsewhere. Almost every day a woman is killed."

Sometimes justice is meted out. In August 2004, a convicted rapist and murderer because to the first person to be executed in Indian since 1995. He was hanged at a Calcutta jail. He had had murdered and raped a teenage girl in 1990 and was sentenced to death the following year. Crimes against women occur in a lot places. In 1992, 1,432 American women were killed by their spouses, about the same rate as India.


Sati (Widow Burning)

“Sati” ("widow burning") is a Hindu ritual in which a wife kills herself by throwing herself onto her husband's funeral pyre after her husband's death. It was regarded a s act of self-sacrifice to help both in the wife and husband and their children in their next lives. The practice is named after Sita, a manifestation of Shiva’s wife and wife of the legendary hero Rama. Sita is regarded as the ideal wife because of unquestioning loyalty to her husband. In the Ramayana she proves her chastity to her husband Rama by walking through a fire. The Ramayana says "Without my lord, my life to bless, where would be heaven or happiness.”

In western India, Rajput lineages proudly point to satis in their history. Sati was never widespread, and it has been illegal since 1829, but a few cases of sati still occur in India every year. In choosing to die with her husband, a woman evinces great merit and power and is considered able to bring boons to her husband's patrilineage and to others who honor her. Thus, through her meritorious death, a widow avoids disdain and achieves glory, not only for herself, but for all of her kin as well. [Source: Library of Congress]

Sati (or “sutee”) means “virtuous woman.” It is supposed to be voluntary and never demanded of women with young children. By going trough with it, it is believed, a woman not only expunges her sins but also those of her husband: helping to ensure them millions of years of bliss together in heaven. Hindu scripture related to sati reads: “O mortal, this woman (your wife), wishing to be joined to you in a future world is lying by your corpse; she has always observed the duties of a faithful wife. Grant her your permission to abandon this world (of the living), and relinquish your wealth to your descendants.”

Dowry Murders, Violence and Harassment

Every year several thousand Indian women are murdered by their husbands or in-laws in dowry murders. The murders don’t just take place in rural villages, often they occur in middle class families in some of India's most affluent neighborhoods. Only a handful result in convictions. According to a Harvard University study, released in 2000, between 11,000 and 13,000 Indian brides die each year in dowry disputes, an increase of 175 percent from 1990.

In many cases, particularly in urban areas, a groom's family makes excessive demands on the bride's family — even after marriage — and when the demands are not met, murder the bride, typically by setting her clothes on fire in a cooking "accident." The male and female in-laws implicated in these murders have seldom been punished. Such dowry deaths have been the subject of numerous media reports in India and other countries and have mobilized feminist groups to action. In some of the worst areas, such as the National Capital Territory of Delhi, where hundreds of such deaths are reported annually, the law now requires that all suspicious deaths of new brides be investigated. Official government figures report 1,786 registered dowry deaths nationwide in 1987; there is also an estimate of some 5,000 dowry deaths in 1991. Women's groups sometimes picket the homes of the in-laws of burned brides. Some analysts have related the growth of this phenomenon to the growth of consumerism in Indian society. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The entire family of the groom is often in cahoots with him to extort more dowry from the bride and her family. The bride's family often pays the money to avert violence but often fails to accept a battered daughter out of disgrace. "Is it possible," one scholar told U.S. News an World report, "that families so fear losing social status and financial assets that they risk the death of their daughter? Apparently yes." [Source: Emily MacFarquhar, U.S. News and World Report]

Bride Burning

In the late 1970s there was a sudden increase in the number of women who died in front of exploding stoves, caught on fire after their saris were dipped in cooking oil or were burned to death with kerosene in the homes of their in-laws. These deaths were first listed as accidents. Later many of the deaths were reclassified as suicides and murders after feminist groups become suspicious.

In many cases, it turned out, the victims were wives set on fire by husbands or their in laws because the wive's family failed to meet dowry payments or failed to pay additional amounts demanded by groom's family after marriage. In the most blatant cases the wives were burned to death in their in-laws home and the in-laws reported the death as a cooking accident. Sometimes men got drunk and tried to set their wive's beds on fire.

Most of the cases were among middle class families not poor families. Some scholars say that bride burning is a crime of passion, not greed, and there are many reason why the crime occurs.

Honor Killings and Acid Attacks in India

Honor killings are practiced by Sikhs. In a celebrated case in 2000, the mother of Sikh girl ordered hired killers to slit her daughter’s throat in a Punjabi village. The girl—a Canadian citizen who lived in Vancouver— was a member of a powerful Jat Sikh family. Here crime was marrying a poor rickshaw driver from her mother’s village

There are sometimes acid attacks in India. In New Delhi one woman was attacked with acid shortly before her wedding by a former a former boyfriend because she decided to marry another man. When women in Kashmir ignored a call by a Islamist group to cover themselves, radicals began throwing acid in the faces of uncovered women. Women began covering themselves.

Sexual Harassment in India

Jayaji Krishna Nath, M.D. and Vishwarath R. Nayar wrote in the Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Poverty forces many rural girls around 10 years of age to be employed as housemaids in rich and middle-class homes. In addition to the economic exploitation, some of these girls also face sexual harassment by males in these households. Since these girls are in no position to resist sexual advances, most sexual harassment acts are not reported or complained about to the police. College girls and young working girls face the problems of harassment. The problem of “Eve-teasing” - old-fashioned pinching, fondling, and other sexual harassment of women on the street - has become so serious in recent years that the government has had to promulgate a law prohibiting this behavior. [Source: Jayaji Krishna Nath, M.D., and Vishwarath R. Nayar, Encyclopedia of Sexuality*/]

“One small but significant incident that may signal a change in the pervasive acceptance of sexual harassment in Indian culture occurred in mid-1996, when a 61-year-old Punjab state official was convicted of “outraging the modesty” of a woman in public by slapping the backside of another senior Punjab official at a public event in 1988. After eight years of delays and alleged government cover-ups for the defendant, the court unexpectedly convicted the defendant, the former general of police for the Punjab district and a national hero for his suppression of the Sikh rebellion. While the sentence appeared insignificant, a mere three months in jail and a $20 fine, the court did stipulate that the defendant be subjected to what is known in India as “rigorous imprisonment,” a harsh regimen generally reserved for serious criminals and hardly befitting a national hero. While recognizing this verdict as a small measure of justice, women’s groups in India hailed it as a landmark because of the prominence of those involved, and the fact that appeals will keep this harassment case in the public view for some years to come. “ */

Rape in India

Some 70 percent of all rapes in India occur within the family an only four percent of rapists are convicted. Jayaji Krishna Nath, M.D. and Vishwarath R. Nayar wrote in the Encyclopedia of Sexuality: “Sexual exploitation of girls is another problem faced by females in India. Data on the crime of rape shows that a total of 4,919 rape cases were registered in the country in 1981, with an increase of 12.8 percent from 1980. Few cases of rape are actually reported to the police because of the negative consequences to the future life of rape victims. Young Indian women who are known to be victims of rape are viewed as outcasts and their families disgraced, even though they were not in any way responsible for the attack. The spread of Western culture, the disruption of urbanization, exposure to films with lots of sex scenes, and pornographic materials are all contributory factors in the increasing the number of rape cases in India.” [Source: Jayaji Krishna Nath, M.D., and Vishwarath R. Nayar, Encyclopedia of Sexuality */]

The severest penalties for rape have included hanging, life imprisonment and castration. In many cases rapist that are caught are quickly released on bail and are acquitted. In Nagpur, a city in central India, women angered by the inaction against rapists decided to take matters in their own hands. In 2004, they attacked alleged rapist after they were released by police and burned down the houses of other alleged rapists. A 24-year-old old gang leader, accused of raping several young girls and pregnant women, was stabbed and stoned to death by a mob of women. Two other men who had extorted money from women by threatening them with sexual abuse were also killed.

Rape Victims in India

Women who are raped usually stay quiet because it brings shame to them and their family if their secret is revealed. If a rape is concealed, most often a girl returns the family's house or is placed in a different marriage.

In many parts of rural India rape victims are encouraged to kill themselves if word gets out about the rape because they are considered a dishonor to their families. If they don’t kill themselves their fathers, brothers or other male relatives kill them. The victims are often blamed rather than their attackers because in matters of sex, women are regarded as weak temperaments of men.

Some rape victims are encouraged to marry the rapists. In some cases police won’t even file a rape report until an attempt is made to try and marry the attacker and the victim. A nurse in Delhi was raped and had an eye gouged out by her attacker and then was left for dead. The rapist was tried and found guilty. Minutes before the man was to be sentenced his lawyer approached the judge with an offer: that the attacker marry the victim to spare the attacker a long prison sentence and the victim dishonor. The lawyer said the attacker was even willing to accept the victim without a dowry payment. The victim’s response: “I would rather die than marry him. He should be hanged so that such a horrendous act is not repeated” Her family turned down the deal and the rapist was given two life sentences in 2005.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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