India’s Daughter and the Political Economy of Rape in Urban India

I watched the documentary India’s Daughter this weekend, along with many other people around the world.  However, unlike most other viewers, I had the privilege of watching the film with its director Leslee Udwin at a small event hosted by Plan UK.  After watching the film, there was a panel discussion featuring Leslee, the CEO of Plan, Oxford professor Maria Misra, and the head of the England bar, among others.  The discussion of the film and violence against women, both how to understand it and what to do about it was vigorous, and sparked some thinking of my own.

I’ll focus on the why of rape, because I thought the film put together a few, but far from all, of the pieces of this puzzle, before suggesting a vision for going forward.  Violence is complex, and the patters of rape in Delhi and other India cites clearly point to multiple, inter-related causal factors.  I’ll touch on several elements that were mentioned at the panel, but then focus more on one dimension that did not feature prominently in the discussion I attended: the political economy of urban India and its connection to violence.

Culture.  The film and many panelists identified the conservative elements of Indian culture that define gender roles and norms in a way that raises the potential for gender-based violence.  Boys are often privileged over girls, many men feel that women belong in the home, and a girl’s honor is something to be protected with violence, even violence against her, should she be perceived to violate it.  While the film makes clear that these sentiments are hardly universal, it also demonstrates that they are held by many Indians.  The attitudes about women held by Jyoti’s attackers contributed directly to the actions they took.

Justice Institutions. Panelists pointed out rapes are hardly reported in Delhi and that those that are reported virtually never result in a conviction of the perpetrator.  Thus, men can rape with impunity.  It seems that the justice system does not take rape seriously.  Yet when forced to, due to the massive street protests that Jyoti’s brutal rape generated, the Delhi police response was swift, the justice system process was efficient, and the proscribed punishment was unequivocal: death by hanging.  Could the justice system react with such effectiveness in every reported case of rape?  Panelists spoke of limited personnel and resources, so it seems very likely that the system would collapse under the weight of a purely law and order response.

Economic Inequality. I will dwell here slightly longer, because it’s where things start to get more interesting, and potentially controversial.  It’s very difficult to argue against the above two points and contributing the rape culture in parts of urban India.  Cultural attitudes permissive (and potentially justifying) rape, and no real punishment for rape perpetrators.  What’s less clear, but potentially very important, is the role of economic inequality and exclusion faced by millions of poor urban dwellers, who have come to India’s cities and megacities looking for a new life with new opportunities, but mostly just scraping by.  The film points to the impoverished backgrounds of most of Jyoti’s attackers and points to the challenges and pressures they faced.  What neither the film, nor the panelists at the showing spoke about was the bigger picture, the growing inequality in India’s cities.  India’s inequality gap is widening, and it is most obvious in the country’s urban areas, where billionaires and vast numbers of slum dwellers live side by side (not literally, of course, as many walls, gates and armed security guards separate the two).  The question one might be tempted to ask is: so what?  Maybe vast inequality is not great, but what does it have to do with rape?

Valid question, fortunately there is growing evidence to suggest clear answers.  The detrimental effects of inequality on society are becoming increasingly documented, see here and good overview TED talk here.  The specific link between inequality and crime has also been studied.  The core of the thinking is that visible inequalities, particularly combined with cultural messages about the value of consumption, create deep feelings of inadequacy and powerlessness among individuals whose prospects for achieving the level of affluence they are confronted with daily are incredibly small.  Thus, such individuals often look for domains in their lives in which they can exercise power.  For poor young men in urban India, this would seem to be over women, with rape being one of the means of enacting this power.

Political Economy.  To frame this situation from a political economy perspective, we need to talk about urban exclusion.  Growing urban inequality, combined with the effective political exclusion of the urban poor, is creating a governance dynamic that maintains and deepens the economic and social marginalization of a significant share of urban residents.  In Delhi, this can be seen through expanding evictions of slum dwellers.  Urban governance in India is highlighted by struggles by the poor for a secure environment and basic services, against a backdrop of predatory politics and the threat of exclusion from even basic citizenship.  And to reiterate, structural inequality and marginalization of this kind is directly linked to rising crime and violence.  Anthropologist Tani Adams has done great work unpacking some of these complexities in the context of Latin America, and her findings apply more broadly as well.

What this means is that we won’t meaningfully diminish rape in urban India by hanging all convicted rapists, or even by significantly improving investigation and conviction, and then hanging many more convicted rapists.  Nor will we significantly diminish rape by teaching and demonstrating more equal gender norms to boys and girls.  Addressing biased cultural attitudes and improving the security and justice system are important parts of a more holistic solution.  But the more challenging, and in my view, more important struggle, is to create inclusive cities, not exclusive ones.  Cities that provide services, ensure decent opportunities, promote social integration, and create safe environments for their citizens.  This is a governance challenge, and fundamentally, a political challenge, that goes to the meaning of democracy itself. This will require a movement, and a sustained one, of a broad cross-section of Indian society.  Perhaps the protests that were sparked by the outrage over Jyoti’s senseless rape and murder will be a part of this.  Other actors like the Mumbai alliance of the slum dweller federation, women’s cooperatives and the NGO SPARC are playing an important role.  External actors can also support these efforts, but not through a focus on projects or technical capacity building.  A movement to make India’s cities inclusive, and safe, will be a generational struggle, not a month, a year or five years, with easily measurable indicators of progress.  But it is this long march that could really reshape India’s cities, and would let the next generation of Jyoti’s achieve their dreams without living in fear.


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