Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s 13-point action plan to ensure women’s safety is a step in the right direction but this needs to tempered with several adequate safeguards, say experts

“I insist that my daughter is home by 8 p.m. every evening, because after that I don’t think it is safe for her to be out alone,” said Jayanthi Venkatesan, mother of a 16-year old.

Ms. Venkatesan welcomed Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s proposal to increase police presence and install CCTVs in public buildings, as part of the 13-point action plan to ensure women’s safety and prevent incidents of sexual harassment in the State.

The action plan also pitches for police personnel in plain clothes at market places and around women’s colleges, setting up of a women’s helpline, fast-track mahila courts in each district and an amendment to bring cases of sexual assault under the purview of the Goondas Act.

While women from most sections of society welcomed the steps taken by the Chief Minister, some expressed their apprehensions.

Most activists condemned the death penalty and chemical castration recommended in the plan.

“When most societies are doing away with the death penalty, it is retrograde to bring it in here. It is a notable step that the Chief Minister has responded quickly, but the steps should be implemented carefully and sustainable measures should be put in place,” said the director of a woman’s NGO based in the city.

Experts also feel detention of offenders under the Goondas Act might not work. Sudha Ramalingam, advocate, said that preventive detention has never helped to control crime.

“What we need now is proper training of police personnel to conduct forensic and scientific investigation. Many rape cases end in acquittal because of faulty investigation or witnesses who turn hostile. Also, the police need to prosecute such witnesses. There is a law for it that is rarely used. Having women in investigation teams will certainly help, but studies on women police stations have shown that they are no better than general police stations, in terms of being sensitive and accessible,” she said.

Geeta Ramaseshan, advocate, Madras High Court, while welcoming the proposal of having fast-track mahila courts, observed that the court comes into the picture only after the act is committed. “Having draconian laws and increasing the punishment will only lead to fewer cases getting registered. In the recent case in Delhi, there was very visible violence, but not all cases are like that.”

The move to set up a helpline was welcomed by those such as Anupama Srinivasan, programme director, Prajnya, an NGO working on gender violence issues. “The existing helpline works only from BSNL mobiles and so is not very useful. The line should integrate services provided by various government and non-government agencies. We also need trained personnel to handle calls, and help callers with whatever they need, including legal help, distress help, emergency help or assistance of other kind. Police personnel also need to be trained to record cases. There is not much you can do with the FIR once it is filed, so it has to be done properly,” she said.

Stating that the police must not become a part of the problem, V. Geetha, feminist activist, said that the problem begins with the local police stations, where even filing an FIR is difficult.

As someone who heads an institution for women, Nirmala Prasad, principal, M.O.P. Vaishnav College for Women, is constantly worried about safety. “Though we have over 100 CCTVs on the campus to make sure no man enters it without permission, the moment they step out, they experience harassment,” she said. Be it travelling by bus, or even while waiting for one, many students are victims of everyday abuse. We need stricter punishments for such people on roads and buses,” she said.

However, most noted that this was a larger problem, and issues about gender, masculinity, and creating a culture of respect must be fostered.

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