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New Delhi - A report this week ranking India as the most dangerous country in the world for women has reignited the ongoing debate over women's safety in the vast country.

On Tuesday, the Thomson Reuters Foundation - the philanthropic arm of Reuters media company - released a study that ranked India as the most dangerous place due to its high incidences of sexual violence, lack of access to justice in rape cases, child marriage, female feticide and human trafficking. India outranked such countries as Syria and Afghanistan - second and third - that are currently at war.

Experts interviewed for the poll said that India had topped the list because its government has done little to protect women since a controversial rape and murder of a young student in 2012 prompted widespread outrage and changes in the country's rape laws.

"India has shown utter disregard and disrespect for women ... rape, marital rapes, sexual assault and harassment, female infanticide has gone unabated," said Manjunath Gangadhara, an official in the southern state of Karnataka told Thomson Reuters.

The poll - based on a survey of 548 experts on women's issues - ignited an immediate firestorm of controversy on Indian social media where critics blasted it as based on opinion, not facts. The report, however, noted that reported cases of crimes against women rose 83 percent between 2007 and 2016, where there were four cases of rape every hour.

In addition, India has the most child brides in the world - around a third of all girls are married before their 18th birthday - and its own government estimated earlier this year that there are 63 million "missing" women in the country due to sex-selective abortion as well as 21 million unwanted girls.

Reported rapes in India - 38 947 in 2016 - are on the rise, but its rate of rape per 100 000 people remains far lower than some Western countries, including the United States, which experts believe is in part due to years of fear and underreporting.

The study kicked up a political debate when India's chief opposition leader, Rahul Gandhi, was criticized Tuesday for tweeting that while the prime minister "tiptoes around his garden making Yoga videos" a reference to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's recent fitness video - "India leads Afghanistan, Syria & Saudi Arabia in rape & violence against women. What a shame for our country!"

His supporters quickly dug up old tweets from Modi in 2011 - the last time the survey was done - lamenting the fact that India had ranked fourth then.

narendramodi_in tweeted "India is considered 4th most dangerous for women. When will she feel safe & symbol of positivity?"

"Moral of the story: the rankings are not the issue here, they're absurd," journalist Nidhi Razdan tweeted, safety of women "has been an issue for years under both governments."

In April, Modi's top lieutenant, Amit Shah, defended his boss's record on women at a rally, saying that in India "women have a status of a deity" and that the government had instituted many programs to help them - such as Modi's ambitious plan to put a toilet in every Indian home - as well as the country's move to toughen punishments for child rapists after the brutal murder and gang rape of an 8-year-old girl earlier this year that shocked the country.

The Washington Post