Beyond the narratives

Along with narratives, a framework for analysing acts of violence against women can help generate a discussion around how they can be prevented.

Any discussion on “violence against women” in India seems to be focussed more on the latter part of the phrase (“against women”) rather than on the operative part. This gives rise to narratives that range from blaming patriarchal social structures to something as absurd as chowmein as causes of violence against women (especially, rape). The fact is that violence targeted at women happens across the country and rape is only one form of such violence. Several others – such as acid attacks and bride burning – often escape the attention of the mainstream media and social analysts. While discussing different narratives around violence against women may be helpful, we must bear in mind that any solution based on these narratives is a long-term solution, and can take several generations to bear fruit.


Perhaps using the framework below, for analysing acts of violence against women can help generate a discussion around how such acts can be prevented. The framework maps different acts of violence across whether the victim was known or unknown and whether the act was planned or unplanned. Quadrant 1 in the framework below represents instances of violence against women, where the victim is not known to the attacker and the attack is also not well-planned. As we moves along the X-axis, Quadrant 2 represents crimes against women where the victim is known, but the crime is unplanned. Similarly, Quadrant 3 represents cases where the victim is known and the crime is planned and Quadrant 4 shows cases where the victim is not known but the attack is planned.


Statistics reveal that a larger proportion of the instances of rape are those where the victim was known to the perpetrator(s). As per crime records maintained by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), the victim was known to the rapist(s) in as high as 86 percent of the cases of rape crimes reported in 2014. The proportion was higher at 94.3 percent, for rapes reported in 2013. However, once other forms of violence against women (especially, molestation or “eve-teasing”) are included, it is likely that several cases of violence by unknown persons go unreported or are not taken up by the police, owing to the obvious difficulty in investigating the case and social constructs that hold back a victim from reporting such incidents due to fear of social rejection.

In a survey of public transport users in Delhi, it was found that 78 percent of women surveyed had been sexually harassed in the past one year, and 69 percent of these women had faced assaults such as groping or forcible assault (this compares to a reported crime rate of 41.74 per lakh of female population for the year 2012). Interestingly, instances of rape are less than 30 percent of the total number of sexual offences, reported in 2014, and for the other sexual offences, the relationship of the victim with the accused (if any) is not recorded by the NCRB.

Global data on violence against women also points to the above trend – a greater proportion of women have experienced intimate-partner violence than non-partner violence, but when all forms of violence (including unwanted sexual advances, sexual harassment etc.) are included, it is acknowledged that there is a need for more research. In a survey of 42,000 women across 28 member nations of the EU, it was found that reporting rates were low for both instances of violence by intimate-partner and by non-partner. Similarly in the USA, although the prevalence rate for rape and sexual assault declined from 5.0 per 1000 females in 1995 to 2.1 per 1000 in 2010, a survey

revealed that 41 percent of women have experienced physically aggressive harassment in their lifetime.

Using the above framework for analysis, it can be inferred that the government (or relevant private authorities, in the case of private institutions like schools) can play an active role in preventing incidents of violence against women when the crimes are unplanned and against unknown victims. The government’s sphere of influence covers Quadrant 1 and part of Quadrant 4. The government or any other third party can play only a limited role in preventing incidents of violence which are on Quadrant 2 and Quadrant 3 (Except in the case of acid attacks, where the state/government has an important role to play in helping control the sale, storage and availability of strong acids).

Most incidents on Quadrant 1 can be prevented simply through better provision and management of public goods, especially policing or security services (in private establishments such as schools, where the management of the private institution is responsible for safety of the students and teachers).

For instance, the December 16 gang-rape could possibly have been prevented if Delhi Transport Corporation buses were more frequent and reliable for women, especially at night. Similarly, safe public transport and better night-policing could also have prevented the recent case of gang-rape of a BPO employee in Bangalore. In the case of rape by an Uber taxi driver in Delhi, it has been reported that the driver had been arrested earlier for a rape case, but he managed to get a fake character certificate. In the Shakti Mills gang-rape case, the lack of police presence around the location in the heart of Mumbai can be questioned, especially given that the crime took place in the early hours of evening. In the case of alleged gang-rape of a child in an upmarket Bangalore school, the role of the school management comes into question for not keeping a check on staff members as one of them took the unaccompanied child into an isolated room.

Similar questions can be raised in almost all cases of violence against women that can be mapped to Quadrant 1. Current research on prevention of sexual violence adapts the ecological model, to understand sexual violence as a complex interplay between individual, relationship, community and societal factors. Factors such as lack of police or judicial support and weak community sanctions against perpetrators are clubbed under ‘community’ factors, but this framework does not consider infrastructural issues such as lack of safe public transport or inadequate policing itself.

A survey by Stop Street Harassment concludes that almost 55 percent of the women recommended installation of more security cameras and increased police presence to prevent sexual harassments. Continuing with the USA, with the instances of sexual assault on campuses increasing, the government is promoting “bystander intervention” programmes, to encourage those who are around, when a sexual assault is likely to occur or occurring, to “step in and stop it.” Along with this, the Department of Education also asked all educational institutions to ensure that they put in place policies to prevent sexual violence, investigate cases of sexual assault and take steps to prevent such instances from creating a hostile environment.

Taking an example of a developing country similar to India, many similarities have been noted between the gang-rape of a tourist in a bus in Rio de Janeiro and the December 16 Delhi gang-rape case, including the fact that public transport is inadequate in the ciy and the police failed to check the bus although it passed through the same route and checkpoints several times. In Mexico, 80 percent of sexual assaults on women are committed in public transport or in taxis, and several of them go unreported. In 2008, the Mexican government implemented a system of segregated sections for men and women in Metro trains and Metrobuses during rush hour. Global strategies for prevention of sexual violence against women must, therefore, focus not just on socio-ecological issues but also on safety of women in public spaces and institutions.

For crimes that fall in Quadrant 4, suitable modifications must be made to the laws so as to help prevent such crimes, and the law of the land must hold accountable, those who commit the crimes or allow such crimes to be committed under their rule. It is important that any cases of alleged sexual assault by armed forces personnel are investigated by independent and impartial agencies and those found guilty must be duly punished in accordance with the laws of the country. The investigation and follow-up penal action must leave no space for criticism – unlike in the case of alleged rape of village women by army personnel in Kunan-Poshpora villages of J&K – especially because armed forces personnel continue to benefit from impunity to some extent in J&K, on account of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). Globally, sexual violence has been reported in conflict zones in several countries such as Afghanistan, Central Africa, Congo, Myanmar, Somalia etc. and impunity from prosecution – either legally sanctioned or informal – of the perpetrators, who are usually members of the state armed forces or members of local militia groups, is seen as a major factor that allows such violence to spread unchecked.

Incidents of violence against women where the victim is known to the attackers can be minimised through a combination of deterrent punishments, making it easier and safer for women to report cases of sexual violence, and long-drawn out social change. It is here that studying the narratives surrounding violence against women in detail would be helpful. Steps taken to address crimes that are on Quadrant 1 can give rise to significant positive externalities that can also help bring about social change and help reduce violence against women by persons known to them. When women are free to go about doing their jobs, when they are safe on the streets and in public spaces and when they can interact with men as equals, it is likely that the outlook of men towards women will change.

Author’s note: The mapping of different forms and cases of violence against women across the four quadrants is based on subjective analysis of news reports only, and not on any interview of accused attackers or victims.

Photo: A.MASH