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Rape Affects Indian Tourism

The Taj Mahal, perhaps the most famous Indian tourist site, is the embodiment of a love story. Other Indian palaces have less romantic implications.

Many people love to travel in India and I am one of them. However, the rape crisis there has profoundly changed the country’s image–leading many to wonder how “modern” India really is–and, now, has significantly damaged Indian tourism. In the first quarter of this year, the number of female travellers to India dropped 36% compared to the same period in 2012–a clear response to the horrific Christmastime “bus rape” that called world attention once again to India’s cavalier attitude toward violence against women. Rapes have continued after the massive protests that followed that incident and victims have increasingly been white European or North American travelers (even those accompanied by husbands). Such news stories are now having a disastrous effect on the tourist trade, with potentially far reaching effects on the overall Indian economy.

Tourism represents 6% of India’s GDP and 10% of its formal employment.  In addition, some 60 to 70 million informal jobs are believed to depend on the tourist trade.  The tourism industry contributes about $18 billion a year to India’s current account deficit–about 20%.  Thus, foreign travel injects necessary outside currency into the economy, an important consideration since economic growth slid from 9% in 2010 to 5% today.

A recent New York Times article provides an interesting window on what India is doing to counter the drop in female tourism.  A luxury hotel in Delhi has set aside a whole floor for single females, with security cameras focused on their doors and female-only staff to service their needs–even the airport pick-up contact is female.  The ministry for tourism has set up a toll-free multilingual help line.  Thomas Cook India has begun specialty tours for women only; those travelers are provided with free cellphones and an array of emergency contact numbers. Some states have started special police forces, marked with special armbands, to attend to the needs of tourists.

The facade of this palace gives Jaipur the nickname "pink city." But all these little windows with their tiny openings were actually the compartments where the women were kept. You find a similar arrangement in every palace you visit in India.

Violence against women is a worldwide problem.  However, some nations take it more seriously than others.  It is important to bear in mind that rape in India has been on a steep increase, but that convictions of rapists have been on an equally steep decline, giving the impression that men can commit this crime with impunity.  Fully 89% of the violent crimes committed in India in 2011 were against women.  And this is not to mention the staggering incidence of female infanticide, bride burnings, and other crimes that have long roots in Indian tradition–and thus are not the result of modernization, urbanization, and feminism, as many conservative commentators there want to claim. Further, though the laws in India have been strengthened as of March, many commentators believe that police apathy toward the problem is really at the heart of the matter.  No law will affect the problem if police will not enforce it. The current situation is occurring in spite of female representation in politics at the national level.  NBC World News commented:  “Despite the fact that the most powerful person in the country, Sonia Gandhi, is a woman; that several states are ruled by autocratic female chief ministers; and the mother figure is deeply revered in Indian culture, there is little sense of sisterhood at the top.”

It seems every palace you visit as a tourist in India has a separate section from which women watched the world go by. Some of them even have separate markets inside them for the women--so they couldn't even go out to shop! I am thinking women elsewhere in the world should use their shopping power--especially their travel money--to pressure for change in India.

I want to call attention to the failure of political and legal solutions to solve this problem and the potential for economic solutions to bridge the gap.  If you look at the UNDP and WEF numbers on gender inequality, you can see that there is little, if any, correlation between female representation in politics and measures of women’s empowerment.  India is an example, but the most startling anomaly is South Africa, which gets boosted to the top of the world charts on gender equality because of its political numbers, even though it is widely known as the “rape capital of the world.”

In contrast, I think the tourism situation in India provides an instructive example of how the global economy can be harnessed to work on behalf of women even at the most local level.  All this activity–tourist police forces, special hotel corridors, women-only tours–cannot help but be noticed by locals who are dependent on tourism for their livelihoods. Indeed, the New York Times article mentioned above opens with an interview of Mr. Dixit, who lives off selling to tourists. He remarks:  “India’s image is spoiled when incidents like this happen. It’s unfortunate, and it isn’t good for business.”

The very idea that modernization is the cause of India's oppressive attitudes toward women is ludicrous.

Policy makers and academics still consistently want to separate efforts to achieve gender equality into separate bins marked “economics” and “rights.”  If you try to point out how closely economics and rights are intertwined, how difficult it is to enforce rights when economics pushes in the opposite direction (a particularly vexing matter in India), they quickly fall back on decades-old thinking in which economics is a dirty business and winning rights a noble calling.  This old thinking has also hamstrung the feminist movement, which tends to see any kind of economically-driven efforts to empower women as mere “individualism” or, worse, collusion with the enemy.

We are missing an important means to affect women’s freedoms, even to enforce basic rights, if we do not attend to the underlying economic inequality. From my perspective, the driving mission of the worldwide women’s economy should be to use money to enforce rights.  If that means you travel to Scandinavia instead of India this summer, then so be it.  Maybe the Mr. Dixits on the ground will start voicing disapproval of rape among  peers when its prevalence is hurting their own pocketbooks.


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