In December 2012, the brutal gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old student in New Delhi on a moving public bus drew global attention to India’s pervasive sexual violence problem. Mass protests soon erupted across the country and, in turn, the government passed stricter sexual assault laws (with harsher penalties for rapists as per the provisions recorded in the Criminal Law [Amendment] Act, 2013) and set up 73 fast-track courts across the country to deal swift justice to the perpetrators. In Delhi, the victim’s rapists were sentenced to death.

In the years following the rape, however, it seems that nothing much has changed. The conviction rates at fast-track courts remain painfully low -- a mere one-third, roughly the same as in New Delhi’s regular courts. As of November 2013, the most recent numbers available, these courts had convicted 178 attackers and acquitted 407. The convictions handed out are in accordance with the new laws, which propose longer prison terms and even the death sentence for rape. More than 1,700 cases are still pending.

Meanwhile, women’s safety remains a pressing issue. Far from decreasing, reported rapes are on the rise. According to statistics from India’s National Crime Records Bureau, over the past four decades, the number of reported rape cases in India has increased around 1,250 percent from 2,487 in 1971 to 33,707 in 2013. Today, a new incident of rape is reported every 22 minutes. Most recently, Indians were stunned by news of the alleged rape of a six-year-old girl in the southern Indian city of Bangalore, famous the world over for its burgeoning software industry.

Those numbers are distressing enough. But surveys by local Indian governments reveal that the problem could be even worse. In some areas, between one and four percent of women say that they have been raped or sexually assaulted in the past year. That implies that the actual number of victims in India is between 50 and 200 times greater than the official count; this would correspond with the results of a 2011 poll cited by a leading national newspaper, in which nearly 25 percent of Indian male respondents admitted to committing an act of sexual violence.

Given the sheer volume of sexual violence in India, there seems little point in denying that it has become a deep-rooted and pervasive problem. But why such a significant increase? Some cite more rigorous reporting. Others, including sociologist Patricia Uberoi and gender activist Ashok Row Kavi, blame sexual repression. Rural to urban migration is also thought to play a role. And all of that is likely true. But to those factors I would add India’s sexual revolution, which has brought sexuality into the urban landscape and begun to break down the age-old caste system in rural areas.


India is in the middle of the largest migration in history from rural to urban: over the next four decades, 31 villagers will continue to show up in an Indian city every minute -- 700 million people in all. The rapid transformation has led to a violent cultural conflict. As the journalist Anjani Trivedi writes in one chapter of my book, India in Love: Marriage and Sexuality in the 21st century, “Mega malls are erupting next to maize farms. A young woman buys a mojito at a bar; a young man who has never seen a woman other than his sister or mother is shaking up the cocktail for her. Young men and women are uprooted from their homes and in the process, unknowingly at times, lose their social anchoring.”

For many of India’s young people, the gap is simply too large. In the India of their villages, child marriages still prevail. According to the UN Population Fund, India has the largest number of child brides in the world: 47 percent of girls are married before they reach 18. In the new India, though, a sexual revolution is under way. Most often commented on are the changes that revolution will bring for women -- an entire generation of educated women now has a say in whom they marry and what they choose to do with their lives. But the definition of what it means to be a man in India is also changing, and sexual violence is one expression of increasing feelings of displacement and powerlessness. In the New Delhi gang rape of a student, all four of the convicted rapists were migrants from poor northern Indian states living in abysmal conditions in a Delhi slum.

As if the large-scale migration weren’t disorienting enough, India is also seeing the breakdown of age-old caste systems and of traditional social mores -- a process accelerated by extensive government-led equal opportunity schemes in education and employment. In the long run, this kind of social change is positive; in the short run, it has led to uncertainty about the boundaries between class and gender and created the space for sexual violence.

The recent horrific rape and murder of two girls, 14 and 15, in a village in the populous state of Uttar Pradesh (after which their bodies were hung and displayed on a mango tree) brought to light the role of the caste system in India’s rape crisis. Lower-caste women face much more violence, sexual and otherwise. According to India’s National Crime Records Bureau, four Dalit women are raped, two Dalits are murdered, and two Dalit homes are torched every day. A recent study by the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights reported that over 67 percent of Dalit women have faced some form of sexual violence in their lives. And an analysis of Uttar Pradesh’s crime statistics for 2007 by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, India’s oldest human rights organization, showed that 90 percent of rape victims in the state were Dalit women.

This has something to do with the changing relationship between castes. As Dalits become better integrated into society, some in the higher castes are fighting back to assert themselves. Sometimes, that takes the form of sexual violence. There are no good statistics documenting this problem but, according to the sociologist Sanjay Srivastava, in many parts of North India, higher-caste men rape lower-caste women to emasculate lower-caste men. He takes the example of the state of Haryana, where, for the past decade, men of the higher-caste Jat community have been raping Dalit women to, as he says, “show Dalit men their place.” Since Dalits are a minority and the general structures of the state are lined up against them, they are unable to retaliate. Likewise, in the recent case in Uttar Pradesh, the father of one of the girls was reported as saying that the rape was a product of a conspiracy among the Yadavs, the dominant caste in the area.

The transformation of Indian society is far from over. As it continues to unfold, sexual violence will most likely get worse before it gets better.


To add another complication, India’s sex ratio -- the number of females per 1,000 males -- is one of the lowest in the world. As of 2014, there were 940 Indian women for every 1,000 Indian men. That number might not seem shocking, but consider the size of the country: the ratio translates to 37 million more men than women, which is more than the population of Canada. And in the 17- to 35-year-old group, which commits the most sex crimes, there are 17 million excess men.

As the sociologists Valerie M. Hudson and Andrea M. den Boer point out in their book, Bare Branches, high male-to-female ratios have historically been correlated with high rates of violence. The sociologist Mara Hvistendahl, a contributing editor to Science and author of Unnatural Selection, concurs. She has observed that in China, a skewed sex ratio and gender imbalance lead to higher rates of crime, including sexual crime. The thinking is that young, unmarried males lack the stable social bonds that keep them from committing violent crimes. These low-status young adult males, called “bare branches” by the Chinese -- they are the branches of the family tree that will never bear fruit -- often play a crucial role in instigating violence within societies. Indian scholars, too, have found a strong relationship between sex ratios and violent crime rates in several Indian states.

Hudson and den Boer argue that bare branches in some of Asia’s largest countries -- such as China and India -- not only lead to abuse on an individual level, but also threaten domestic stability and international security. Indeed, according to other studies by Harvard University psychologist Robert Epstein, when available women outnumber available men, women are less confined to the home and values shift toward liberalism. On the flipside, when there is an excess of available men, marriage is generally revered and values remain conservative. Simply put, when men -- who have more power in society -- have more women to choose from, they are more able to set the rules for women’s behavior. Epstein gives the example of ancient Athens and ancient Sparta. Ancient Athens had a shortage of women, with an estimated three men for every two women because of female infanticide and neglect. By contrast, Sparta had a shortage of men, since boys were removed from their families at an early age to receive military training. Girls in Spartan society were educated, and Spartan women could own and inherit property. By the 4th century, Spartan women controlled about 40 percent of their city-state’s land and property. By contrast, Epstein observers, Athenian women controlled no property at all.

All this is bad news for Indian women. Across the country, female infanticide and sex-selective abortions continue to rise with access to cheap ultrasound technology. In the 2011 census, the most recent one, the country’s youngest population group (newborn to 6) was reported to have 914 women for every 1000 men, the lowest number of women ever recorded in any age group  since India’s independence. In other words, even if sex-selective abortion and the murder of female infants stopped this minute, India is already set for another generation of bare branches. And that means sexual violence will continue to increase.


So what can India do? It will, of course, need to tackle its gender ratio over the long run. Estimates of the number of abortions in India in 2012 range from 6.4 million to 6.7 million. But the official number was a mere 620. Two-thirds of all abortions take place outside the authorized health facilities, and approximately 63 percent have been found to be unsafe.Authorities thus need to clamp down on illegal operations, while providing more authorized centers designated for women. There also needs to be stringent monitoring of current abortion regulations, which ban gender testing and sex-selective abortions. 

In addition, India needs a healthy does of sex education. Young Indians need to learn about the risk of sexual abuse in order to protect themselves and access support systems. Educating teachers, children, and parents gives them permission to start discussing sex, which is the first step in tackling sexual abuse. Yet in a troubling post on his personal website, Harsh Vardhan, the newly appointed health minister argued that sex education should be banned, whereas yoga should be compulsory. This came a week after he told a leading international publication that HIV/AIDS should be controlled with morals, not condoms.

Although sex has always been a taboo topic in India, the situation seems worse today than ever. The first Adolescence Education Program (AEP), which aimed to teach sexual education, was created in 1999. It took six years before it was sent to state governments for implementation, and even then many Indian states, including some of the largest -- Gujarat, Karnataka, Maharashtra, and Rajasthan -- rejected it completely. In the half-baked AEP program prescribed today, the words “sexual intercourse” are not mentioned at all; instead, the emphasis seems to be on celebrating abstinence. A distressed school principal of a large public school in Mumbai told me that he tried to implement more intensive sex education programs after the suicide of a pregnant teenager in his school—only to be faced with outraged parents who said that the school was poisoning their children’s minds and that sex education was against Indian culture.

But Indian culture is not just one thing. It changes every day with the arrival of new migrants from the villages, with the advent of new technologies, and with more exposure to the outside world. For all the good things, India’s social upheaval has also brought violence against women, girls, and even female fetuses. And through all this, the government recommends yoga instead of sex education, while organized spaces for young people to discuss sex and gender are few and far between. For India to thrive, that will have to change. In the meantime, daily news items of heinous sexual crimes have become so common that, in August, when asked to comment on the rape of a six-year-old, Siddaramaiah, the chief minister of the state of Karnataka, asked if that was really the only newsworthy event that had taken place that day.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • IRA TRIVEDI is a writer and novelist. Her forthcoming book is India in Love: Sexuality and Marriage in the 21st Century.
  • More By Ira Trivedi