Rape of Swiss national tarnishes India′s image | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 19.03.2013
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Rape of Swiss national tarnishes India's image

A romantic getaway turned into a nightmare for a Swiss couple camping in northern India when they were robbed and the woman gang-raped. The incident has sparked security concerns for foreign tourists.

Two backpackers from Switzerland wanted to discover India and decided to go on a bicycle tour from Mumbai to the capital New Delhi. On their way from the temple city Orchha to the Taj Mahal in Agra, the couple decided to camp overnight in a forest, close to a nearby village.

After dark, they were attacked by a group of 7 to 8 men. The men overcame the husband and tied him up. They then gang-raped the 39 year old Swiss woman in front of him. She was taken to a nearby hospital for medical examination. Six men charged with gang rape appeared in Court on Monday, March 18. The couple is now recovering in New Delhi.

Root cause of the problem

The region Madhya Pradesh is notorious for its high crime rate and skewed gender ratio.

Recent statistics released by the National Crime Record Bureau showed that on average, 9 rapes are reported every day in the state. The report also noted that Madhya Pradesh had the highest rate of female feticide in the country. According to the 2011 census, the sex ratio in Madhya Pradesh, where the couple was attacked, is 930 females to 1000 males. This ratio is below the national average of 940 females.

The Taj Mahal is seen in Agra, India in 1982. (AP Photo/Jeff Robbins)

The couple had been on their way to the Taj Mahal

Deepankar Gupta, a retired professor of sociology from the Jawaharlal University in New Delhi, said there may be a correlation between the female to male ratio and the high number of registered rapes in the north of India.

"Inheritance, mortuary rights, continuation of the lineage and to top it all, the expenses incurred in marrying off a girl respectably, all of these work together to ensure the preference for boys in India," Gupta told DW.

Gupta also believes that the way boys are brought up has led to a skewed mindset in Indian society.

"Men are superior, women should submit, that is the abiding ethic that they grow up with," he said, adding that unemployment and drinking, which were rampant problems in the north, did not make the situation any better.

In northern states, such as Haryana, a number of men have resorted to kidnapping women and in some cases buying them from the north eastern regions of India to marry them.

But, as Gupta explained, the sex ratio alone did not mean men would resort to raping women. He said the fact that rape, especially gang-rape, was more common in places like India or South Africa than in the Western world had to do with the mindset of some of the men there. "It is all a show of power. Men get together and exaggerate each other's ideological flaws, upbringing and status. So they see a woman in a vulnerable position and use force on her."

Responsible tourism

But while violence against women is a problem that urgently needs to be resolved in India, the Swiss couple may have been safe had they not been camping in a forest in a state which is known for its high crime rate. A German woman, who wishes to remain anonymous, and who has been living in New Delhi for the past 7 years, said she would think twice about camping freely in many parts of the world, especially in that particular region of India.

"The couple seeking adventure miscalculated the risk they were putting themselves in. Given my experience, I would not recommend tourists to camp randomly anywhere in India. I personally would not feel safe because of possible robberies and even the nature."

The Taj Mahal is seen in Agra, India in 1982. (AP Photo/Jeff Robbins)

The couple had been on their way to the Taj Mahal

After living in the country for so long, she has come up with a list of dos and don'ts when travelling around.

She said it was important to be sensitive to the cultural backdrop and to be aware of the problem of crime in the country. "I don’t go out alone in the dark. I try and avoid lonely streets. I make sure that if I am travelling late at night, then I am accompanied by friends and only travel in their car. Late at night, I avoid public transportation. That way I just feel more secure."

Setback to the tourism industry

The topic of rape in India has recently been the focus of major media outlets - national, as well as international ones. On December 16 last year, a 23-year-old physiotherapy student, who was accompanied by a male companion, was gang-raped by five men in a moving bus in the country's capital. She and her companion had been brutally beaten and thrown on the side of the street. She died two weeks later in hospital after a number of operations. The case caused a national and international outcry and finally pushed the government to revaluate security concerns of women and critically assess the measures being taken to control the high crime rate in many parts of the country.

Nonetheless, American and British embassies started issuing warnings after the incident and there are fears that these high-profile rape cases could have a devastating impact on tourism in India.

Mr. Sunil Manocha, who runs a travel agency in New Delhi, worries that such incidents could cause lasting damage to India's image. "The recent incident where a foreigner was involved obviously scares the tourists travelling to India," he told DW.

The problem, he said, was that the recent incidents were not isolated ones: In February 2013 a 23-year-old foreign national was raped by an acquaintance in her house in New Delhi; An American student in Mumbai was gang-raped by a group of college students she met at a party in 2009; In 2008, 15-year-old British teenager Scarlett Keeling was sexually assaulted and left for dead in Goa while on a six-month trip with her family; A 36-year-old Swiss diplomat was raped in her car in a parking lot in New Delhi in 2003.

Indian people take part in a prayer meeting in memory of a gang-rape victim in New Delhi, India, 05 January 2013. (Photo: EPA/STR +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++)

The December 16 gang-rape of a student and her subsequent death caused an outcry

A major problem was that many cases never ended up being resolved, said Manocha. What added further strain was that the police and the state administration were ineffective in stopping such brutality because it was first and foremost a question of the mindset of the people - also of enforcers of the law. And that, he said, was what fundamentally needed to be changed.

The latest incident has created fear and outrage throughout the world. On the microblogging website Twitter, many people have expressed concerns over the safety of women, especially tourists, in India. There is anger and resentment and some would-be tourists have gone so far as to cancel their plans to explore India until things finally change in the country.

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