′Rape tag′ affecting India′s image | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 06.06.2013
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'Rape tag' affecting India's image

After a fatal gang-rape in December, New Delhi pledged to tackle the issue of violence against women. However, the number of acid attacks is on the rise and sexual assaults on foreigners have led to a drop in tourism.

"Incredible India," the international marketing campaign by the Indian government to promote tourism, has taken an enormous beating. Global headlines of sexual assaults on foreigners have sparked outrage and heightened concerns about the poor safety net for visitors.

The latest incident involved a 30-year-old American. The woman was picked up by three men in a truck at the beginning of June while hitchhiking back to her guest house in the town of Manali in Himachal Pradesh state, police said. Three men have been arrested in connection with the alleged attack.

The incident follows the alleged rape of a 21-year-old Irish woman who volunteered at a children's charity in the eastern city of Kolkata. She had been celebrating her birthday at the time.

A rape every 20 minutes

In March, a Swiss cyclist was gang-raped and her husband beaten while camping in a forest in the central state of Madhya Pradesh. That same month, a British woman jumped out of her hotel balcony in Uttar Pradesh state to escape a possible sexual assault.

Sex crimes are common in India. The National Crime Records Bureau says more than 24,200 rapes were reported across the country in 2011 - about one every 20 minutes. However, the fatal gang-rape of a 23-year-old university student on a bus in the capital New Delhi in December last year shocked the country and made headlines around the world. The woman, whose companion was also beaten up, died two weeks later of her injuries.

People shout slogans and hold placards during a protest in New Delhi December 29, 2012. (Photo: REUTERS/Adnan Abidi)

The fatal gang-rape of a student in New Delhi shocked the country and sparked violent protests

India's 'rape tag'

Such incidents are also having a profound impact on the country's tourism sector. A recent study published by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India shows that the overall number of tourists to visit India in the first three months of 2013 was down by 25 percent compared to the same period one year ago. Among female holidaymakers the decrease was even sharper, at 35 percent.

"The rape tag seems to have got glued to the nation's image. The seemingly endless series of rapes, acid attacks and stalking is reported with unfailing regularity from across the country," lawyer Prerna Kumari told DW.

New wave of acid attacks

There is a growing sense of public outrage over the issue of violence against women in India. If sexual crime has been on the rise, the appalling incidents of acid attacks point to a new shocking phenomenon. Police in the southern city of Chennai have reported an increase in cases of women seeking treatment for burn injuries or acid attacks; 70 percent of them are fatal.

The wave of acid attack cases has even reached New Delhi. In the past three months alone, the "181" helpline for women in distress has received 56 complaints. "My life is ruined. Just because I refused to go out with a boy in my neighborhood, he and his friends threw acid on me", said Anu Gupta. Thirty percent of her body was covered with burn marks when she was attacked a year ago. "Doctors say I will never be the same again unless I undergo reconstructive plastic surgery," the 25-year-old added.

Women supporters of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) stage a protest over the gang rape and beating of a young woman in New Delhi, India, Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012. Lawmakers, rights groups and citizens across India expressed outrage Wednesday over the latest incident of gang rape which occurred in a bus in New Delhi and are urging the government to crack down on crimes against women. The outpouring of anger is unusual in a country where attacks against women are often ignored and rarely prosecuted. (AP Photo/ Saurabh Das)

There is a growing sense of public outrage over the issue of violence against women

Experts at the Acid Survivors Foundation India say attackers prefer to use hydrochloric, sulfuric and nitric acids because they burn rapidly through flesh and bone. "In most of these cases the girls show no interest in establishing a relationship with the men. The attackers use acid to threaten the girls and finally throw it on them," Rajat Trivedi of the campaign group Stop Acid Attacks told DW.

Are harsher penalties the answer?

There are no national statistics on how many Indian women are victims of acid attacks but the causes are usually linked to disputes over relationships, property and family.

Two months ago new laws were put in place mandating harsher prison terms for rape and making voyeurism, stalking, acid attacks and the trafficking of women punishable under criminal law.

Under the new bill, offenders may get the death penalty in cases resulting in the victim's death or when the attack leaves her in a permanent vegetative state. However, it seems the harsher penalties are not proving to be a deterrent.

This is perhaps the reason why the city council of Mumbai resorted to somewhat unusual methods to cub the rise in sex crimes. Council members overwhelmingly passed a resolution last month barring stores from putting scantily-clad mannequins outside their shops arguing they degrade women and could encourage sexual assault. The municipal commissioner has yet to give the required approval of the resolution.