THE SUNDAY STORYThe Delhi bus rape has galvanised the country on the neglected issue of women’s safety. A look at several cities shows the need for large scale reform – of the police, the law, the legal process, and security in public places.

One thought, one hoped, it would not happen in this case but most unfortunately, it did. In all the outrage, the outpouring of horror, grief and anger, that devastating but familiar comment was made. A policeman standing near one of the many groups of those protesting against the brutal assault on a young woman in a bus in Delhi was heard saying: “She must have been doing something with her boyfriend that got those young men excited.”

The shifting of responsibility for a crime of sexual violence and assault from the male perpetrator or perpetrators to the female victim cannot be disassociated from the unending and ever-increasing spiral of violence against women and girls.

This most reprehensible aspect of patriarchy helps to create and perpetuate the societal conditioning and circumstances responsible for the horrors that are visited on the female sex from the time of conception to the time of an often unnatural and brutal death. It permeates consciousness at all levels. Ministers, politicians, administrators, policemen and members of the judiciary all subscribe to it in varying measure.

This conditioning is often attributed to age-old but strongly held traditional beliefs, feudal and outmoded social attitudes. Unfortunately, what is today the most powerful social arbiter — the market — continuously and in a myriad ways devalues and commodifies women and young girls in its unquenchable thirst for profit. Its insidious reinforcement and re-packaging of the most regressive patriarchal attitudes ensures the continued subordination of women so necessary for its rapacious growth.

Tehelka magazine recently published a series of interviews that its correspondents had done in parts of the National Capital Region with police personnel at various levels. Except for two honourable exceptions, every one of them said that women and girls who lodged complaints of rape were either immoral, or guilty of loose behaviour, or were either blackmailers or prostitutes. This National Capital Region today has the dubious distinction of being the National Rape Capital Region.

This year alone, more than 600 cases of rape have been registered here. In the last four days, after the incident of rape in a bus that has left much of the nation in a state of shocked horror; two gang rapes; one assault by minor boys on a woman at a Metro station; and the rape of his six year-old daughter by an alcoholic father have been reported.

Most of the rapes that occur in this area are of minors, of poor women daily wage-earners, and women working as domestic help. None of these facts, however, seem to have made the slightest impact on those charged with guaranteeing the security and safety of women and children and, when they fail to prevent a violent attack from occurring, additionally charged with bringing the guilty to justice. They, however, continue to hold on strongly to the prejudiced view that women themselves are responsible for the violence that they are subjected to. This can only increase both the insecurity and the incidence of violence.

New legislation

This intolerable situation needs immediate remedial measures. The role of the law-enforcement agencies and the judicial system is crucial, and any improvement in the situation has to start with much more serious attention being paid to this aspect. There is certainly a need for some new legislation — the Bill on Sexual Assault is still to be enacted; the unsatisfactory Bill against Sexual Violence in the Workplace needs to be amended before it is passed in the Rajya Sabha. There is also need to revisit the existing rape laws to make them more sensitive to the needs of the victim and to ensure conviction. At the same time, there is much that can and needs to be done immediately. Prevention of crimes against women has to be treated as a priority by the law-enforcing and legal machinery. This has to be guaranteed by all those who are in positions of power and responsibility.

Everything that can possibly be done to make homes and public spaces safe for women must be ensured, and for this to happen, laws must be implemented without bias.

A beginning has to be made with improvements in the quality of policing. In Delhi the ratio of police to the population is 500:1 lakh, in neighbouring UP which contributes several districts to the National Capital Region, it is only 170:1 lakh. While the Delhi numbers seem to be satisfactory, it is also true that they include all police personnel, including clerks, and they are on duty for only 8 hours each. Of these, more than 10 per cent are deployed on VIP duty and this number increases whenever threat perception to these VIPs increases. These problems, compounded with the low priority accorded to making public spaces safe for women, is responsible for the fact that when a Central Minister took a bus ride at night two days after the incident of gang-rape in the bus, he found no policemen on the roads.

Addressing the problems of policing, and prioritization of ensuring the security of women can ensure immediate registration of FIRs, prompt arrests and filing of charge-sheets. This must be followed by court hearings on a daily basis so that conviction and stringent punishment can be delivered within a period not exceeding six months. Trials of rape cases in our country have, as a process, subjected rape victims to the worst kind of punishment imaginable. Years and years of constantly having to relive a traumatic experience, often in the presence of those responsible, is an unbearable price to pay for justice both delayed and denied.

The victim of the gang-rape in the bus is a courageous woman. She battled with those who attacked her along with her friend. Today she is battling for her life. She cannot speak but she wrote a few words on a piece of paper – “Have they been caught,” she asked. She needs to be told that not only have they been arrested but, by the time she is well again, they will also have been punished.

(Subhashini Ali is president of the All India Democratic Women’s Association. subhashiniali@gmail.com)