By Nita Bhalla
NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - India's recently elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke out against rape in his first Independence Day speech on Friday, saying the country was shamed by increasing reports of sexual violence against women and girls.
"Today when we hear about these rapes, our heads hang in shame," said Modi, from the ramparts of the 17th century Red Fort in old Delhi on the 68th anniversary of the country's independence.
Newspapers and television channels in India carry daily reports of the rapes of women and young girls, some murdered by the perpetrators to cover the crime.
The high-profile gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old student on a bus in Delhi in December 2012 led to country-wide protests for better security for women and sparked national debate about gender inequalities in India.
This has helped embolden more victims to come forward and report the crime, police say. The number of reported rapes in India rose by 35.2 percent to 33,707 in 2013 from the previous year, according to the National Crime Records Bureau.
However, even these figures are under-reported because victims - who are frequently blamed for the sexual attack and stigmatized and shamed in their community – often keep silent, activists say.
Modi, wearing a white Kurta and saffron-colored turban, said it was time to question the rapists, rather than the victims.
"I want to ask parents when your daughter turns 10 or 12 years old, you ask, 'Where are you going? When will you return?'", Modi said.
"Do the parents dare to ask their sons, 'Where are you going? Why are you going? Who are your friends?' After all, the rapist is also someone's son."
Modi also vowed to build more toilets, recognizing that this was a serious problem in the country.
"We are in the 21st century and yet there is still no dignity for women as they have to go out in the open to defecate and they have to wait for darkness to fall. Can you imagine the number of problems they have to face because of this?" he said.
Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept to power in May and he has rarely spoken about the issue of rape since taking office, although women's safety remained a key issue during the election campaign.
Several Indian politicians have been slammed by women's rights activists in the past for making comments blaming women for the rapes, or even worse, encouraging rape
Last month, a parliamentarian from the Trinamool Congress party hit headlines when he was caught on camera threatening to rape women from the opposition Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI-M).
"If CPI-M tries to kill and intimidate our workers here, I will not spare them. I will ask our boys to go and rape CPI-M women if necessary," Tapas Pal told members of his party.
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