A panel of prominent speakers at a forum organised by The Hindu reflected on issues surrounding sexual assault on women in the wake of the Delhi gang-rape

The fight against sexual violence targeting women must gain the dimensions of a fight for gender equality, said participants at a public forum organised by The Hindu on Thursday at the Ethiraj College for Women.

“The aggressor wants the victim to know that she is not an equal,” former Madras High Court judge Justice Prabha Sridevan said. She quoted examples from around the world where even court judgements seem to have treated women as unequal – a recent judgement in the state of Iowa in the United States ruled that a woman could be fired by her employer for being an “irresistible attraction”.

Ms. Sridevan also cited the view of a judicial officer to illustrate her point. At a gender sensitisation programme for judges some years back, the judicial officer stunned her with the words: ‘When the pen does not get inside the holder, sometimes you have to drag the holder.’ “That quote makes you feel disgusted, does it not,” she asked. “All of us are complicit in this objectification of women. Even by our silence,” she told an attentive audience at the forum on ‘Crime and Punishment: The fight against rape’.

A panel of prominent speakers took to the stage in the event to reflect and discuss on the various issues surrounding sexual assault on women, in the wake of the gang-rape and the mass protests condemning it in New Delhi. R. Nataraj, chairman, Tamil Nadu Public Service Commission, D. Nagasaila, advocate and civil rights activist and Sashi Kumar, trustee, Media Development Foundation, were the other panelists. Two students – Pushkal Shivam from IIT-Madras and Supriya Rao from Ethiraj College for Women – also presented their views.

The speakers said that in a country where sexual assaults on women have been happening for a very long time, it was inexplicable why the assault on the paramedical student in a moving bus on the night of December 16 shook up the national conscience and triggered such outpouring of emotions. “Let us not question that,” Ms. Sridevan added. “Let us use to this as an opportunity to end this now. The woman has suffered enough.”

Mr. Nataraj, a former Chennai Police Commissioner, said: “If there is a committed station house officer in charge, such crimes can be prevented.” Exhorting the values of ‘focussed patrolling,’ he said the mere presence of patrol parties in important junctions would act as a deterrent to such crimes. “I am against police patrols stopping and questioning people unnecessarily,” he said. “But if the police presence is very visible, it is possible to bring down these crimes. The police to people ratio is very poor. So we may not completely eliminate crime but it will surely make people wary.”

Sashi Kumar said media had an important role to play in changing people’s attitudes. “Some of the worst stereotypes of patriarchal order like ‘katta panchayat’ are being propagated by cinema, which incidentally is the only pre-censored media in the country,” he noted. “If anything, this can only be an argument against censorship.”

Referring to the calls for stronger laws, Ms. Nagasaila noted that rape laws in the country had been amended several times in the last two decades -- the woman is no longer treated as being an accomplice in the crime; if the woman said her consent was not given, the burden of proof shifted to the assailant, and evidence law had been changed to ensure that a woman’s “sexual history” is no longer permitted to be used to impeach her testimony.

“Is it a problem in the law or its implementation?” she asked. “The problem is in the delivery of the criminal justice system in the country. In most cases, even filing an FIR is a herculean task.” She also pointed out that people demanding stronger laws must understand that once a complaint enters the judicial processes, the players change; the complainants, the activists and the NGOs move out of the picture; and the process is dealt with by the police, prosecutors and the judiciary. “Calling for harsher punishments and lowering the standards of proof can be dangerous. We cannot place too much faith in the judiciary too.”

Pushkal Sivam noted that according to a perception poll, India was labelled the worst place to be a woman among all the G20 countries. “Rape is but an extreme manifestation of gendered notions of power,” he said.

Supriya Rao urged people to be more sensitive when they saw a victim.

Siddharth Varadarajan, editor, The Hindu moderated the discussion. The forum was sponsored by Shriram Chit Funds.

A video on the panel discussion will be available on The Hindu website soon.

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