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Sexual assaults on foreign women dent India’s global image, it’s time to act…

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xin_4111032306358292101831The Indian parliament may have passed the new anti-rape bill last month, but it will take a while for the nation’s image to be resurrected as a safe tourist destination for women. Even when the bill was being debated in the parliament, two sexual assaults on foreign tourists shook the nation and made headlines internationally. And this came barely two months after the headline-grabbing rape of a young Indian physiotherapist in the Indian capital in December 2012, which precipitated the need for a new anti-rape law.

The first attack was on a Swiss tourist woman and the other, on a British woman — ironically, reported from the mecca of Indian tourism, Taj Mahal city Agra. The woman jumped from her hotel room and got injured trying to save herself. It’s a sheer coincidence that the last two cases took place within few days of one another and in the same geographical location.

 In totality, these incidents may be few and far between, but it’s enough to give a country famous for its ancient culture and fabled hospitality a bad name.  However, the picture is not unremittingly bleak. There are many who wouldn’t give too much of a thought to these incidents or change their travel plans. Control Risks, a global risk consultancy agency, in a travel briefing said “… violent crimes against foreigners remain relatively rare in India.” Perhaps that’s why British tourist Sophie Methurst has no problems visiting India a third time. She reasons, rather rationally, “This (crime against women) is not true to India alone. Any big country will have such problems.” She was quoted in the New Indian Express.

That, in many respects, is true. South Africa is said to have the highest reported incidence of rape in the world. In Europe, Sweden holds that dubious distinction. In China, only one in ten case are reported, amounting to a quarter of a million rapes in a year. The US, too, holds similar numbers though it is believed that there is a lot of under-reporting. In India, a woman is raped every 20 minutes, as per the National Crime Records Bureau, and the conviction rate of sexual crimes against women is the lowest in the world. Seen against such a background, it doesn’t seem shocking to read statistics in India. But when these incidents take place in quick succession, they end up giving a negative image to a country. And that’s what is happening at the moment to India’s image as a safe and secure tourist destination.

Not surprisingly, tourism has been hit by all the negative publicity in the last three months. A survey conducted by the Associated Chambers of Commerce & Industry of India (Assocham) has reported a drop of 25% in the number of tourists coming to India in the first three months of 2013. The number of female tourists went down by 35% compared to the same period last year. The figures were based on a survey of 1,200 tour operators, many of whom have reported cancellations in the first three months.

 

Tourism contributes about 6% of the annual GDP and as per government data, around 6.3 million foreign tourists visited India in 2011 – a large number out of this are women. So obviously reports of rape incidents raise alarm bells. Sunil Manocha, a travel operator in New Delhi, knows that “such incidents obviously scare the tourists travelling to India.” He was quoted as saying in the Deutsche Welle. Danish tourist Judith Jensen was quoted in the AFP as feeling a persistent sense of danger. The security scenario has exacerbated the sense of crisis that the Indian tourism is facing. Assocham’s secretary-general D.S. Rawat was reported saying in The Guardianthat the foreign tourists were bypassing India for other Asian destinations like Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam.

 It’s indeed ironic that the Swiss gang-rape happened a month after the Swiss Foreign Ministry issued an advisory for its nationals travelling in India, warning that sexual violence was on the rise. Following the sexual assault on the British tourist, Britain has issued a rather strict travel advisory.

The latest sexual assaults on foreigners in India are not entirely new. In 2003, a Swiss diplomat was raped in a parking lot in the capital of the country. In 2008, a British teenager was raped and murdered in Goa. In January 2013, a South Korean student holidaying in Madhya Pradesh alleged that she was raped by the son of the owner of the hotel where she stayed.

For an emerging power like India which has so much to offer to the world and its travelers, the least the powers-that-be can do is to shield the country from such brutality through effective action by law-enforcement authorities.


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