Despite sustained campaigns and legal changes, convictions have declined steadily

From the near-illegible notes scrawled by investigators at the Prasad Nagar police station, we know this: ever since 2005, the young woman who walked in through their doors last month had been stalked by her brother-in-law, given flowers and chocolate and beatings.

There was the time, a bottle of rat-poison in his hand, he threatened to kill himself if she did not declare her love; there was the time he showed up with an affidavit on Rs. 50 stamp paper, promising to marry her.

Then, there were the times he raped her.

The files do not record what led the woman to summon up the extraordinary courage it takes to file a criminal complaint for rape, but this we can be certain of: she is less likely than ever before to receive justice from India's criminal justice system.

Shameful figures

In 1973, when the National Crime Records Bureau first published nationwide statistics on rape, 44.28% of perpetrators — almost half — were being convicted by trial courts. In spite of years of hard-fought struggles by women's rights groups, and landmark Supreme Court judgments, the conviction rate has fallen to 26.5% — just about a quarter. The decade-on-decade conviction rate has been in free fall: to 36.83% in 1983, 30.30% in 1993 and 26.12% in 2003.

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Maharashtra reported a 13.9% conviction rate in 2010, while Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal both recorded 13.7%. Karnataka stood at 15.4%. Jammu and Kashmir had the lowest conviction rate nationwide: a disgraceful 2.6%.

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Lawyer Rebecca John, who has worked on the frontlines of sexual assault prosecutions, holds declining investigation responsible. “I can tell you from personal experience,” she said, “that nine out of ten cases fall apart because of shoddy investigation.” “There often isn't a single fingerprint to link the perpetrator to the crime scene, let alone anything else.”

In 2009, Delhi began issuing SAFE — short for sexual assault forensic evidence — kits to all major hospitals, in the hope of improving evidence collection. “The new systems,” says Pushpa Singh, head of obstetrics and gynaecology at Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital, which has been using SAFE kits for the last year and a half, “make evidence-gathering far more accurate and useful.”

The fact is, though, that SAFE hasn't boosted conviction rates — often, an official familiar with the procedures said, because “protocol isn't followed.” “The police accompanying the victims aren't sensitised on how to deal with them; clothes and personal articles aren't stored properly; the temperature at which vaginal swabs are kept is sometimes inaccurate. The evidence is often useless.”

Legal measures haven't helped much either. In case after case, the Supreme Court has set landmark standards for rape trials — holding, among other things, that the testimony of a victim did not need independent corroboration, and insisting that women officers alone deal with victims. In trial courts, though, perpetrators are still walking free.

In not one of five 2012 cases surveyed by The Hindu had forensic tools been used to link the alleged perpetrator to the crime scene; in one, involving a 14-year-old Bihar resident kidnapped by a friend, there was no paperwork to suggest that the alleged perpetrators had even been tested for a DNA match.

“Frankly,” says Pinky Anand, an eminent New Delhi-based lawyer who has worked on several key women's rights cases, “I think we need to focus less on the law, and more on the institutions which make the law work. That's where the real problem is.”

(With inputs from Devesh Pandey and Bindu Shajan Perappadan)

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