An 30-year old American woman was gang-raped Tuesday in the northern Indian town of Manali after deciding to hitchhike back to her guest house after visiting a nearby friend. The police report that the three men in the car that picked her up early Tuesday morning raped her. No arrests have been made, but police officials say they "have found some clue at the crime scene."
With reported cases of sexual assault on the rise, India's rape crisis is a symptom of the lack of respect women are afforded in Indian culture and law. Seen from abroad, this is the latest in a series of high-profile rape cases in India that have led many to wonder whether India is a safe destination for tourism.
Although it is said that foreign tourists are rarely targeted, that is only true when taken relative to the daily cases of rape in cities such as Delhi. As recently as March, a Swiss tourist was gang-raped while cycling in rural India, and a British traveler jumped out of the third-floor window of her hotel to flee her assailant. In order to begin to understand what causes the seemingly endless series of brutal rapes in India, we can start by looking at the law.
In December, the fatal gang-rape of a young woman on a New Delhi bus sparked national outrage as protesters demanded better protection for women. Only then did the legislature pass a law increasing the punishment for rape and making it punishable by death. While an important development, the new ignores instances such as domestic rape and abuse. Under Indian law, marital rape is still not a crime.
Ms. Kumari, 28, who lives in a slum east of Delhi, says, "many women in her locality are forced daily" to have sex with their husbands, but "there is no law which allows us to press charges against our husbands."
In response to the protests earlier this year, Parliament released a report warning "It has the potential of destroying the institution of marriage … if marital rape is brought under the law, the entire family system will be under great stress."
Instead of taking comprehensive action to promote the well-being of women in society, the Indian Parliament based a law meant only to satisfice protesters, and cities such as Mumbai are taking weak initiatives such as banning lingerie mannequins.
The reluctance to address key issues such as marital rape, which affects two-thirds of married Indian women, can be traced to the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955, which says a wife is duty-bound to have sex with her husband. This same law is the basis for the common practice of courts allowing men to divorce on the grounds that his wife denies him sex. "The wife is unwilling to share the bed and discharge her duties," the Karnataka High Court said in a judgment last year.
One of most significant effects of the publicity these rapes and their legal treatment is the 25% drop in tourism India has seen since December, including a 35% drop in female tourists. The AFP reports that Britain's foreign office updated its travel advisory for India in March, stating specifically that female tourists should "exercise caution when travelling in India even if they are travelling in a group," and the U.S. State Department's website asks female travelers to "observe stringent security precautions" and "avoid travelling alone in hired taxis, especially at night."
Accurate tourist safety statistics are hard to come by, but by referring to the information made available by diplomatic agencies such as the State Department and Foreign Office, tourists can better understand the particular threats involved with travel to different regions and countries.
Had the American woman raped Tuesday morning heeded such warning and chosen not to hitchhike alone, she may have been able to avoid falling victim to a tragic crime. While she is of course not to blame, her story should be a reminder of the dangers we must all be aware of. As India continues to fight to end the cultural norm that rape is somehow acceptable and can be justified, such as in marriage, we must do our part to stay informed so that when travelling abroad we can take the precautions necessary to stay safe.