Magazine article Newsweek

India's Rape Crisis Is Worsening, and There Still Isn't a National Registry for Sex Offenders; Local Newspapers Feature Almost Daily Reports of Gruesome Sexual Assaults on Infants and Toddlers

Magazine article Newsweek

India's Rape Crisis Is Worsening, and There Still Isn't a National Registry for Sex Offenders; Local Newspapers Feature Almost Daily Reports of Gruesome Sexual Assaults on Infants and Toddlers

Article excerpt

Byline: Jason Overdorf

In mid-January, when New Delhi police arrested Sunil Rastogi for sex crimes against underage girls, the 38-year-old father of five made a horrifying confession: He claimed to have assaulted, or tried to assault, as many as 500 girls over the course of more than a decade.

It's not clear how reliable that number is, but since 2004, authorities have arrested Rastogi at least 15 times on similar charges, and he hasn't been convicted. A court has yet to scrutinize his recent confession, but since his arrest in January, investigators say they have linked him to 58 sex crimes across at least three states--where victims identified him by a distinctive red-and-white shirt.

Shocking as Rastogi's alleged crimes may seem, few in India seem surprised that he has never been punished. Over the past few years, many across the country have come to believe that sexual violence is increasing thanks to rampant poverty, rapid social change and a failing legal system. Since 2012, when the vicious gang rape and murder of a young Indian woman aboard a bus in Delhi made international headlines, India has passed stronger laws against crimes like sexual harassment, stalking and voyeurism; it has also increased jail sentences for many sex crimes and placed the burden on accused rapists to prove that the sex was consensual. But sexual violence and the media frenzy surrounding it have showed no signs of slowing. Along with attacks on adults and teenagers, local newspapers feature almost daily reports of gruesome sexual assaults on infants and toddlers.

Now, as the national outrage over Rastogi--and the ease with which he allegedly abused young girls--continues, the country's activists, politicians and police are looking for ways to change societal attitudes toward rape and to fix a justice system that is failing to keep repeat offenders behind bars.

Many blame urbanization and related social changes for the problem. Between 1991 and 2011, the year of the latest census, the portion of Indians living in urban areas rose from around a quarter of the population to nearly 40 percent, while the population of the National Capital Region surrounding Delhi increased to 46 million from 27 million. Many of the new migrants live in informal slums that lack water and sewage, let alone regular police patrols. Accustomed to villages where women of all religions wear modest clothing, often covering their faces with veils or scarves, they're confronted with new, more permissive attitudes toward sex. And the migrants can no longer rely on extended family networks to watch their children, because their own parents stayed in the countryside. As a result, parents of child abuse victims often say they want to move back to their villages, says Rajat Mitra, a Delhi-based psychologist who often works with the police. "Earlier, the Indian families were set up in such a way that if somebody tried to exploit a child, it would come to the notice of someone," Mitra says.

Though sex crimes often go unreported in all countries, the problem is acute in India, where rape carries a social stigma--many victims, and their families, fear it will hurt their marriage prospects. Indian police registered fewer than 40,000 cases of rape and other sex crimes against children in 2015, compared with around 63,000 reported annually in the U.S.--which has only about a third as many children.

When people do report sex crimes in India, few cases go to trial. "Even when pedophiles are arrested, they're set free after a short period due to a lack of good investigation or proper evidence," complains a Delhi police inspector, who asked to remain anonymous because he's not authorized to speak to the press. Very few officers receive adequate training in how to collect and preserve forensic evidence, and almost no Indian police stations have the equipment they need to properly store and transport semen and pubic hair samples, among other biological evidence, without compromising it, says Rajinder Singh, a Delhi High Court lawyer who has represented accused sex offenders and rape victims. …

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