The Delhi bus gang-rape conviction is not the only example of lax cultural attitudes to sexual violence

A study showed almost a quarter of men in the Asia-Pacific region admit rape. It seems sexual violence is regarded by some men as an acceptable part of relations with women

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When six men set out on a “joy ride” in a bus in Delhi last year, they can hardly have expected the evening to end in life imprisonment or a death sentence. But that is the prospect facing four of the gang, who have just been convicted of the horrific rape and murder of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student. Protests continue outside the court, where sentencing is due on Wednesday, but the case raises questions about attitudes to sexual violence which resonate far beyond India.

Much of the evidence In the Delhi trial was heard behind closed doors. That doesn’t help the cause of open justice and it also means we don’t know crucial information about the case. Here we have six men – one of the defendants hanged himself and another has been convicted as a juvenile – who tricked a young woman and her male friend into boarding their bus before embarking on what amounts to a prolonged and lethal bout of sexual torture. Did they plan it? Had they attacked girls and women on other occasions?

The idea that these defendants suddenly took part in a vicious gang rape without previously sharing contemptuous attitudes to women is hard to believe. And while their crime is dreadful, it sheds light on something anti-rape campaigners across the world have argued for decades: far from being rare or exceptional, sexual violence is regarded by some men as an acceptable part of their relations with girls and women. This is not to say that all men are potential rapists, but it is to argue that in many countries cultural attitudes towards sexual violence are insufficiently condemnatory.

Look at the results of a UN-led study, published just before the verdicts in the Delhi trial. It says that almost a quarter of men in the Asia-Pacific region admit to having committed at least one rape; more than half claimed they were still in their teens when they raped someone for the first time. India is not one of the countries included in the study but the UN’s human rights commissioner, Navi Pillay, has described sexual violence in India as a “national problem”. In South Africa, almost 150 women report rape to the police every day but research by the Medical Research Council suggests that only one case in 25 is reported in some areas.

This is not just a problem in the developing world. We know that rape is under-reported in the UK: official figures represent ‘at best 20 per cent of what’s happening in London’, according to Deputy Assistant Commissioner Martin Hewitt of the Metropolitan Police. In recent weeks several prominent women, including the campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez and the Labour MP Stella Creasy, have been bombarded with threats of rape on Twitter.

Tolerance of such behaviour is an integral part of what campaigners call rape culture: lax and jokey attitudes which habitually underplay the seriousness of sexual violence. Treating rape as a normal part of life threatens all women, where we live in the world.

Joan Smith is Co-chair of the Mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Panel

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