Fighting against rape and sexual violence is laudable, but merely viewing rape as a law and order issue without addressing the underlying social causes of the crime will not solve the problem, writes Ash Murthy.

I am an Indian male, so I must be a rapist!

At least that is what Prof. Annette Beck-Sickinger, of the University of Leipzig, believes in. Denying an internship to an otherwise well-qualified Indian male student, she wrote in her rejection email, “Unfortunately I don’t accept any Indian male students for internships. We hear a lot about the rape problem in India, which I cannot support. Many female professors in Germany decided to no longer accept male students for these reasons, and currently other European female association are joining.”   Taking a stand against rape is correct and laudable, but to do so by reinforcing sexism and bigotry is hypocritical at best, and a miscarriage of justice, at worst.

On December 16 2012, as the world now knows, a paramedical student was raped and killed on her way back from a movie in New Delhi. The brutality of the crime shocked India and the world. What then happened was unprecedented: A society infamous for its apathy towards rape victims erupted in protests demanding better protection for women. The very justifiable protests soon evolved into a mob that demanded instant death penalty for alleged rapists. The occasional blips of dissent that called for a more cool-headed and fundamental approach to the problem were quickly silenced by the raucous calls for mob justice.  The Indian government catered to the mob by enacting unprecedentedly strong rape laws that would challenge the presumption of innocence — a fundamental human right according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The consequences of the strengthened rape laws have been anything but intended. While there is not an iota of evidence that the revised laws have dented crimes on women, the miscarriage of justice due to the social and legal presumption of guilt is unmistakable.  A seminal data analysis on recent rape cases reported in New Delhi by The Hindu found that, in over 21% of the cases, the alleged victim turned hostile or admitted to filing a false complaint. To be sure, in some of these cases, women may have been pressured into not co-operating with the prosecution, but it would be extremely naive to believe that all those who admitted to filing false complaints did so under pressure.

In the northeastern state of Nagaland, an alleged rapist was lynched to death by a mob.  Reports of the alleged victim’s medical examination, released just hours after the incident, pointed to the murdered man’s possible de facto innocence. In another high profile incident, the video of two sisters assaulting three alleged molesters in a bus in rural India made international headlines. But days later, a freelance journalist, Deepika Bhardwaj, reported that the sisters, who were by then dubbed by the media as “brave heart sisters” had a history of using India’s draconian laws for crimes against women as a tool for blackmailing gullible men by threatening them of being falsely accused of rape or molestation. The government, after conducting its own investigation, withdrew the reward that it had earlier announced to the sisters.  As Arthur Miller wrote in the play ‘The Crucible,’ “common vengeance writes the law.”

As India emerges as an economic powerhouse, its once rigid gender divide is becoming increasingly blurred, at least among the bustling middle classes.  Incidents of sexual assaults and rape now make national headlines, and victims come forward to share their stories on social media. But there is still much to be desired for: The dingy slums that the less fortunate live in, are geographically just miles away from the discotheques and pubs that the young, financially independent women dance to Bollywood songs, but culturally and economically light years away. Somewhere in these slums there is sure to be a pregnant woman praying for a son, and a rape victim afraid of being exploited by the police, and ridiculed by her neighbors.

Mukesh Singh’s victim blaming in the documentary “India’s Daughter” caused an international outrage, but in the world of poverty in which Mukesh and other rape convicts belong to, such thoughts are commonplace. Economist Jayati Ghosh points out a correlation between poverty and violence against women – Men in the margins of the society who feel trapped in a world of poverty are unable to accept the financially independent status of the educated women and take out their frustration through violence on their docile housewives or sometimes the educated women that they feel insecure about. India’s draconian laws to prevent crimes against women don’t mean much to the women struggling to make ends meet: they choose to tolerate domestic violence and marital rape to becoming destitute by losing the sole breadwinner of the family.

The Modi government’s recent decision to not criminalize marital rape has triggered a firestorm. To be sure, marital rape is unacceptable in a civilized society, but ignoring the underlying social causes of the crime or increasing criminal liability without understanding the unintended effects to overbroad laws, as overzealous anti-rape activists suggest be done, is irresponsible. We cannot end the problem of violence against women unless we eradicate the social problems that haunt the Indian society – illiteracy, poverty and the stigma of divorce.

Trying to understand and address the underlying cause of rape and violence against women, instead of merely legislating laws that lead to questionable convictions but does not help the genuine victims will not make us misogynists. It will only make us more prudent.