Tendency to trivialise offences against women should be countered: expert

That a complainant’s past sexual conduct is irrelevant in a rape trial was among the key issues discussed at a seminar, “Gender Based Violence: Challenges and Institutional Responses,” organised by The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy and the U.S. Consulate, Chennai, on Friday.

Responding to a key question raised by N. Ram, Member, Board of Management, The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy, on the concept of ‘Rape Shield’, Denice Labertew, Director, Advocacy, California Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said the past sexual conduct of the complainant cannot be used against her when a rape trial is on.

Bringing in the Indian context, Prabha Sridevan, retired judge, Madras High Court, clarified that a complainant’s past history is irrelevant and, if interventions are made to refer to it, the judge can demand that that line of prosecution be dropped.

Ms. Sridevan said the tendency to trivialise offences against women should be countered effectively. “Offences against women haven’t been treated seriously,” she added.

Line of Equality

She went on to talk about an imaginary Line of Equality, representing the distance each person had to travel to move ahead. “If all of us have to travel the same distance, there is equality.” But compared with men, women always had to travel a longer distance. The role of the state is to ensure that it does not violate the equality of women, but it is also its duty to ensure that a departure from equality is impossible or difficult, she added.

Sudha Ramalingam, advocate, said that ensuring the silence of the violated woman was part of the establishment’s plan. Attempts were made to trivialise women’s problems by cracking jokes on incidents of violence perpetrated on them. Sometimes, the biggest transgressors were police personnel, she added. The police, she said, were reluctant to register a complaint of violence against women.

Need for sensitisation

Even if they registered a complaint, they did not investigate the case properly and seldom took it to its logical, legal conclusion. Gender sensitisation for police staff from the ground level was essential, she added.

Prateep Philip, Additional Director-General of Police, Economic Offences Wing, Tamil Nadu, said sensitisation workshops had been conducted for officers at the entry level over the years and they had helped. He suggested that economic weightage be assigned to every activity, including housework and raising children. “It will then become apparent that women actually contribute more,” he added.

The panel discussion was moderated by A.R. Venkatachalapathy, member, Board of Advisors, The Hindu Centre, and professor, Madras Institute of Development Studies. He spoke of the humiliation women faced in the academia, where they were present in large numbers.

Ms. Labertew spoke of the institutional measures in place in the U.S. to tackle gender-based violence. Realising that it was not an issue that only the law-enforcement could handle, various institutions had put in place systems to look at policies and implement schemes that could tackle harassment at the organisational level. She also provided details on the Violence Against Women Act, enacted in 1994, and subsequently re-authorised many times by Congress.