To tell the world his daughter’s name

Two weeks after being gang raped and penetrated with an iron rod in Delhi, India, a 23-year-old student died of massive organ failure resulting from her injuries.

The brutal nature of the attack, the prevalence of rape in India (and especially in its capital city), and the inadequate police response triggered an unprecedented outpouring of public rage. The case has received widespread media coverage.

The photos of Indian women, and some men, passionately demanding justice in public demonstrations have become ubiquitous, powerful images of a nation dissenting against a crime too often written off as, at best, the fate of women, and at worse, their own fault.

Part of the anger stems from the reality that the Delhi bus rape is only the tip of the iceberg. It was a rare example of rape making headlines, where sexual violence largely occurs with impunity, in India and elsewhere.

In a 2007 survey conducted by the Indian Government it was reported that 53% of Indian children said they had experienced some form of sexual abuse. In 2011, some 15,423 rape cases went to trial, with only 26% resulting in convictions.

When the father of Jyoti Singh Pandey decided to tell the world his daughter’s name this week, he said he did so to give other women who have been raped courage.

His is a message directed at an untold number of women and girls. Rape is the most under-reported form of violent crime in the world. It consistently has the worst statistical reporting, with many countries keeping no rape statistics at all.

Somalian activist Hawa Aden Mohammed estimates that in her country, experiencing a torrent of sexual violence, 90% of rapes go unreported. She says the reason is that women know that nothing will be done, while they risk being shamed and ostracized for speaking out. Women in camps for the internally displaced are particularly at risk, and camp leaders are reportedly indifferent to the fact that women under their watch are hunted down like animals to satisfy the savagery of merciless, violent men.

Hundreds of thousands of women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo live amidst a rape epidemic, the defining characteristic of the war there. The brutality is pervasive: it’s extensively documented that thousands of women are so mutilated from rape, sometimes with branches or bayonets, that they routinely require reconstructive surgery for fistula (though most cannot access treatment). In a state indifferent to them, many women experience numerous rapes. And many die from their horrific injuries.

In the Congo and Somalia, rape is part and parcel of war, a highly effective means of destroying a society by brutalizing what is central to its social cohesion: its women. Yet even in the United Kingdom, with a vastly superior justice system, it is estimated that 75-95% of rapes are never reported.

In the U.S. there is an average of 207,754 reported rapes and sexual assaults annually. In the town of Steubenville, Ohio, this week smaller protests are taking place in response to the alleged rape by young players of the local football team of a 16-year-old girl while she was unconscious. The case was only made public as a result of social media leaks of comments and photos related to the incident.

In Pakistan, where one of the most notorious rape cases in the world occurred (the Mukhtar Mai gang rape), The Express Tribune alleges that reported rapes are a negligible fraction of those that occur. They write on December 31, the plight of women who have faced rape and sexual assault in Pakistan has been largely confined to formulaic articles in the press, slow-moving cases in the courts, and frequent dropped charges due to bribes, threats of further violence and family pressure on the victim to avoid further ‘shame’.”

It is an all too familiar pattern, repeated around the world. Coverage of rape crimes is often sensational not because of the rarity of the crime, but the rarity of reporting.

It raises the question of how many other vicious rapes have taken place on the streets of India, or on streets closer to home, where circumstances never coalesced to garner public or media attention. It is difficult enough to truly absorb the inhumanity of what Jyoti Singh Pandey endured the night of December 16th. How can we begin to imagine that her experience re-occurs day after day, night after night, for millions of women around the world, often in their own homes and communities? How can we begin to be open to the devastating truth that she is not the only one, but rather the only one that we know of in such grim detail?

Rape carries on around us unshackled. Yet the reaction in India to the senseless loss of a young woman – a woman raped so viciously that it killed her – could mark a turning point. It could be the beginning of something, if we are prepared to confront the scale of sexual violence, the severity of its consequences, and the systemic impunity surrounding it.

Nahid Toubiam is a Sudanese doctor who has campaigned tirelessly for women’s sexual autonomy. When she testified at the Vienna Tribunal on women’s human rights back in 1993, she stated, “These women hold back a silent scream, a silent anger that if it were to get out it would shatter the earth.”

We cannot begin to fathom that our planet is a civilized one until the women and girls of this planet are free from sexual violence. And we cannot get there until we acknowledge the scope and gravity of what we are facing, and confront it with conviction. May the courage and rage of Indian women begin to shatter the passivity we’ve espoused for too long towards rape.

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