GOA, India – “India is a very spiritual and magical place,” gushed Paris Hilton when she visited for the first time last year, expressing a widely held view.Many visitors to India believe that the people are gentle, welcoming and that it is a safe place to travel.
But their perception is wildly at odds with the grim picture portrayed in the pages of India’s national papers and on its television screens on almost a daily basis.
Last Tuesday, a 30-year-old American tourist says she was gang raped as she hitch hiked in the early hours of the morning near Manali, a popular tourist spot in the mountainous northern state of Himachal Pradesh. The attack came just days after a 21-year-old Irish aid worker was raped in Kolkata - an attack which took place, according to the police, after she had been drugged by a local businessman.
The attacks have reignited the debate over whether India has apparently become a more dangerous place to be a woman. What has changed in the culture? Is urbanization to blame? A change in modern morals? Or lax law enforcement?
The debate over violence against women has gripped the nation since December 2012 when a 23-year old Indian medical student named Jyoti Singh was brutally gang raped.
Singh was traveling home with a male friend after an early evening visit to the movies. Tricked onto a bus by a group of young men, she was raped so savagely that her intestines were torn from her body. She died on December 29, but not before identifying the men she said attacked her and becoming a symbol for women across the country of their daily struggle against violence.
Women - and some men - poured onto the streets to protest, clashing violently with the police, who many blame for failing to take rape seriously.
The Indian government, rattled by the ferocity of the protests, rushed through new laws making provision for tougher sentences - including the death sentence - for rapists. The trial of the defendants in the Singh case is ongoing.
But the government is battling sweeping changes in Indian society, largely due to rapid urbanization, which is having a profound impact on the traditional family structures as men migrate to the cities in search of work, leaving behind parents, wives and children.
Urbanization fueling crime?
“Migrant workers are living together with no female influence, just a bunch of men living together. They are developing a new cult of masculinity, being driven by the pornography industry,” said Ruchira Gupta, an Indian women’s rights activist and Emmy award winning documentary maker.
“India is now the third largest user of pornography in the world and the porn narrative here is one of sexual violence and domination, which is sending signals to men to associate sex with violence. They are attacking women all over the country, whatever their age or color,” said Gupta, who also lectures at New York University’s Center of Global Affairs.
She also warned that tourists should not take their safety for granted because “there is also a backlash against Westernization, which is embodied in the white female.”
Rape has soared in India in recent years. Recorded rapes have risen by 873 percent since independence in 1947 and there were 24,206 rape cases in 2011, according to government figures. At the same time rape convictions fell by 44.3 percent between 1973 and 2011.
Women’s empowerment activist Kathleen Suneja also cited urbanization as a driving force behind the rising rape figures.
“Urbanization has made Manali a high crime area and women are as likely to be raped in Delhi as in Manali,” she said, referring to the mountainous tourist destination where the American woman was attacked.
She blamed lax law enforcement and called for special police units to protect women's rights and prosecute violent crimes against women.
“India needs the equivalent of the [U.S.] Violence Against Women's Act,” she said.
Some activists in India hoped that Singh’s death would prove to be a turning point in attitudes towards women, yet the rapes have continued.
In March a Swiss tourist was gang raped while camping in Madhya Pradesh state. After the alleged assailants arrest, the state’s home minister Umashankar Gupta created embarrassment over comments that seemed to blame the victim for the attack. “The rape of the Swiss national is unfortunate, but foreign travelers should inform the police about their movement so that they can be provided with adequate protection. They often don't follow state's rules," Gupta said.
In the same month a British woman told police she jumped from her first floor hotel window in Agra - near the country’s most famous tourist site, the Taj Mahal – because she feared being sexually assaulted by the hotel manager after persistent knocking on her door at 4 a.m. The woman injured her foot in the fall, but was otherwise not badly hurt. The hotel manager denied the allegations.
The following month, the crowds were back on the street to protest after a 5-year-old girl was raped over a four day period in the Gandhi Nagar neighborhood of Delhi. Anger was fueled by the revelation that came out in an official investigation that police had tried to pay off her father with $38 dollars to drop charges.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Home Affairs defended the government’s actions Friday, saying they had "taken all necessary action" to address the issue of rape and the reporting of rape by victims, including the introduction of new legislation.
The spokesman for the Ministry of Home Affairs said that in the aftermath of the Jyoti Singh rape case, the government had set up a commission of investigation headed by retired High Court judge Usha Mehra. The commission found that there were shortcomings in the police handling of the case, and called for reforms which included better police training to handle complaints of rape more sensitively. The spokesman also said the commission branded the response of the police to victims' complaints as "callous.” Police have responded to the criticism by introducing reforms and training officers to be more sensitive to women’s complaints
But police aren’t the only ones who have come under fire for their response to the rape issue.
Despite the fact that the most powerful person in the country, Sonia Gandhi, is a woman; that several states are ruled by autocratic female chief ministers; and the mother figure is deeply revered in Indian culture, there is little sense of sisterhood at the top.
Mamata Banerjee, West Bengal’s chief minister, notoriously dismissed a gang rape victim’s allegations as an attempt to undermine her government and earlier this year she claimed rising rapes were a result of a growing population and a youth with modern views.