India women’s commissioner criticised over response to Spanish tourist’s rape

‘These unfortunate incidents happen everywhere in the world and we must condemn them ... but telling them that the country is unsafe is not acceptable,” Rekha Sharma tells The Independent

Arpan Rai
Tuesday 05 March 2024 12:26 GMT
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Spanish woman raped during motorbike tour of India with husband

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The chief of India’s top women’s rights body is facing scrutiny for “victim-blaming” and “failing to act on complaints” of sexual assault in the wake of the gang-rape of a Spanish tourist in the country.

Rekha Sharma, the chairperson of India’s federal National Commission for Women (NCW), lashed out on Monday at a comment by US-based writer and journalist David Josef Volodzko who warned solo travellers of “unsafe” conditions in the country for women.

His comments were made in the context of the alleged gang-rape of a 28-year-old Spanish-Brazilian tourist and the physical assault of her 64-year-old husband in the Dumka district of Jharkhand where they had set up their tent for the evening on Friday night.

The couple, who were found by the roadside around 11pm on 1 March by a patrolling police vehicle, posted a video recounting the assault.

Responding to the video, Volodzko said the level of “sexual aggression” he witnessed while living in India for several years was “unlike anywhere else I have ever been”.

“I never met a female traveller who had not been groped or assaulted or worse, even if they had only been in [the] country for mere days. I love India. It is and always will be one of my favourite places in the world. But I have advised female friends who asked me not to travel there alone,” he said on his X account.

Ms Sharma called the journalist irresponsible for not reporting these alleged incidents.

“Did you ever report the incident  to Police? If not than you are totally an irresponsible person. Writing only on social media and defaming whole country is not good choice (sic),” she said, resharing his post.

The reaction provoked anger and shock in the country as several people, including the journalist himself, accused the NCW of failing toacknowledge the Dumka incident and instead focusing on hitting back at those sharing their experiences of sexual harassment for “defaming” India.

The NCW, he said, has a “deplorable habit of blaming women” in distress.

“I am not Indian, so take my view for whatever it is worth, but my Indian friends do not seem to have much respect, if any, for NCW and one reason for this is because it has a deplorable habit of blaming women when they are attacked, raped, or even murdered. NCW makes India less safe for women when it does these things,” Volodzko said.

He added: “Sharma herself has faced criticism for failure to respond to complaints filed by women’s rights groups over credible allegations of women being publicly stripped naked, beaten by mobs and raped in public. And yet here she is with the gall to accuse me of defaming India.”

In July last year Ms Sharma was accused of not taking any immediate action after receiving a complaint about an incident where two women were paraded naked in the violence-hit northeastern state of Manipur.

Ms Sharma said at that time she had reached out three times to the authorities in Manipur over incidents of violence against women but received no response from them, according to reports.

The opposition Indian National Congress party’s spokesperson Lavanya Ballal Jain accused the women’s body chief of “passing the buck”.

“Have you read NCW chairperson Rekha Sharma’s latest tweet. Please read, this is how she victim shames and passes the buck when it comes to discharging her duties. Her mentality only emboldens, rapists and molesters,” she said on X.

Indian actor Richa Chadha also criticised Ms Sharma’s response. “Rekha Sharma is more worried about perception rather than the ground reality of rape, perhaps she doesn’t get time to read the newspaper. Do tag her in the future, when you come across news of rape and sexual violence, so she is aware,” she said.

Swati Maliwal, Delhi’s top official heading the city-state’s own commission for women, called out the assault and asked officials to arrest the accused.

“It is a matter of shame for our country that a tourist woman from abroad was gang-raped and beaten by 7-8 criminals. We should be ashamed our country’s name is being tarnished across the world,” she said on X.

She urged the state government of Jharkhand to investigate the case as soon as possible and sentencing the criminals.

Speaking to The Independent, the NCW chief said she took issue with Volodzko’s general statement that India had sexually regressive men and women should not travel there alone.

“These unfortunate incidents happen everywhere in the world and we must take on them and condemn them in strongest possible words but telling them that the country is unsafe is not acceptable to me,” Ms Sharma told The Independent.

The survivor earlier revealed in an interview with Spanish TV channel Antena 3 that she was raped in turns by the men for about two hours while some watched. Pitamber Singh Kherwar, the police superintendent of Dumka, told reporters that the patrol van transported them to a nearby health centre for medical care.

The incident has sparked a debate on the safety of women in the country. Many women travel influencers also voiced their concerns on social media. A hashtag asking for justice for the victim was also shared widely among the biking community.

Reassuring women travellers in India and those considering visiting, Ms Sharma urged people to reach out to the police in cases of they experience any incidents of harrassment.

“I would like to say that, God forbid, if any untoward  incident, sexual or otherwise happens to you please reach out to the police or NCW. Police – because it will be the first contact point and if you don’t get help from them we are there any time of the day or night,” she told The Independent.

In 2022, close to 90 rapes were reported daily in India, according to data from the India’s federal body National Crime Records Bureau. However, the actual number is likely higher, as a significant portion of cases remains unreported due to a prevailing stigma surrounding victims and a lack of trust in police investigations.

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