In India, it’s estimated that two women are raped every 60 seconds. The country’s sexual violence was elevated to the national stage after reports emerged about a brutal gang rape on a New Delhi bus that left a 23-year-old student dead in December. Since then, at least six foreign women have told police that they have been attacked or traumatized by men in India — leading many countries to issue travel advisory for the country.
And predictably, the number of female tourists visiting India has plummeted by a third over the past several months. Officials from India’s Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry admit that recent high-profile rape cases have “raised concerns about the safety of female travelers to the country.” The agency reports that overall tourism has dropped by 25 percent.
Of course, the atmosphere in the country doesn’t pose a risk only for tourists. India’s deeply-ingrained rape culture — which perpetrates a stigma surrounding sexual assault, often blames the victims for endangering themselves, and ultimately dissuades people from reporting crimes to the police — is an ongoing war against the women who live there. With the constant threat of sexual assault hanging over them, Indian women often don’t feel safe enough to leave their homes.
The situation has gotten so bad that a group of engineers is working to develop “anti-rape lingerie” they hope can help lower the number of sexual assaults. The lingerie is laced with a global positioning system (GPS) and a global system for mobile communications (GSM), which can transmit messages to the owner’s family members. The underwear can also emit shock waves to deter potential assailants. The developers of the device — which they call “Society Harnessing Equipment,” or SHE — explain they hope it will give women “freedom from situations faced in public places.”
Taking steps to decrease the sexual violence in India is critical. But that goal could likely be accomplished with better tactics, like updating the country’s legal penalties for rape. Encouraging women to protect themselves with anti-rape underwear, on the other hand, simply feeds into the victim-blaming culture that already exacerbates the country’s violence. As Kavita Krishnan, the Secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, explained in a fiery speech following the high-profile Delhi rape, women in India are always given instructions for how they should keep themselves safe. “The word ‘safety’ with regard to women has been used far too much,” Krishnan argued. “It means, You behave yourself. You get back into the house. You don’t dress in a particular way. Do not live by your freedom…. A whole range of patriarchal laws and institutions tell us what to do in the guise of keeping us ‘safe’.”
Female tourists are getting much of the same advice. Indian officials frequently suggest that tourists don’t do enough to keep themselves safe from attacks, and should simply stop putting themselves in danger. But India won’t be a safe place — either for foreign visitors or for the women who live there full-time — until that attitude shifts away from encouraging women to keep themselves safe, and toward encouraging everyone to stand up to sexual violence.