The press has widely reported today on another horrid gang rape in India. Two girls aged 14 and 15 were raped by several men in Katra Sadatganj, a small village in Uttar Pradesh, and were found hanged from a mango tree. There were completely shocking pictures of the two girls still hanging there, as their family refused to have them taken down until the truth had been established about the role of the police (who apparently hadn’t bothered because the two girls belonged to the Dalit “untouchable” caste) and the culprits (who belonged to a higher caste) were arrested.
This just another case in a series awful gang rapes in India, after the case of the student raped and killed in a bus in Delhi in December 2012, or the gang rape of a Swiss tourist in 2013. Even if one shouldn’t extrapolate from the media emphasis, rape and violence against women have often been presented as an endemic problem in India. One factor that has sometimes been mentioned to explain this is demographics: India is one of the countries with a distinctly unbalanced gender ratio: there are 37 million more men than women, and 1.1 men for each woman. This is due in part to a large share of young girls not being born, via abortion or other means, because of a preference for males among many social groups. This is essentially a social norm, but is also driven by economic decisions: the dowry system means that money has to be paid by the family of the bride to the family of the groom when they get married, so that girls are a liability. Preferences for males at birth creates an unbalance gender ratio and an undersupply of women. Uttar Pradesh, the state where this latest gang rape has happened, is incidentally one of the states where this gender unbalance is the most pronounced: there are 912 women for 1000 men.
The question is to know whether this unbalanced gender ratio creates structural conditions favouring sexual violence against women. This would of course in no manner excuse individual behaviors, but behaviour always happens in a context. Hence, the bias against women at birth (via birth control) could hurt women again during their life (via rape). The demographic factor behind violence against women in India was evoked in a number of reports, as the mass of angry young men fed by frustration and anger turn to violence against women, especially in a context where traditional structures or social control are unravelling. This was nicely explained in NYT piece by Lavanya Sankaran:
Indian cities are awash with feral men, untethered from their distant villages, divorced from family and social structure, fighting poverty, exhausted, denied access to regular female companionship, adrift on powerful tides of alcohol and violent pornography, newly exposed to the smart young women of the cities, with their glistening jobs and clothes and casual independence — and not able to respond to any of it in a safe, civilized manner. This is the world of women under siege, the medieval world of the walking undead, the rise of the zombies, targeting females rich and poor. For women, at least, winter is coming.
Does an unbalanced gender ratio in favour of men foster violence against women? In the graph above, I have plotted together the ratio of reported rapes in Indian states (taken from page 206 of this report) and the gender ratio for each state as reported in the census (Stata data file here). There is a very slight positive correlation against the hypothesis explained above (the more women in relation to men, the more rapes), but there are many reasons to believe that this is completely spurious because of huge problems with the measurement of rapes, which are without doubt the most under-reported crimes. Hence, it is probably in the places where male dominance is the strongest, and where rapes are the most likely to happen, that rapes are the least likely to be reported. On the contrary, they are more likely to be ignored by – overwhelmingly male-dominated – police forces. If you look at international data, Sweden ranks extremely high among the countries with the highest number of rapes per population, whereas the United Arab Emirates, which also has a strongly unbalanced gender ratio, have very low levels. This is more likely to be due to differences in the way rapes are reported than to huge differences in the number of rapes. Paradoxically, it might even be that the greater the number of reported rapes, the better the situation of women is.