The trauma and eventual death of a young student from Delhi following her brutal gang rape awakened many across the country to demand accountability from the government to establish stronger laws and more effective institutions to prevent violence against women. The need is to ensure greater security and justice for women and girls within a larger framework of a humane, just and equitable society.
All girls and women, to a lesser or greater degree, are unsafe within homes and in public spaces, and the changes in law and institutional systems must address the multiple ways in which they are vulnerable to violence and intimidation. Feminist groups have long developed a consensus blueprint of many measures which need to be adopted for this, including a far more comprehensive definition of sexual violence, and more effective and impartial institutions and processes for registration, investigation and prosecution of offences.
But in designing these solutions, it is important to also remember that whereas every girl or woman is vulnerable to violence, the most vulnerable are women who also suffer other social and economic disadvantages and oppression. These include dalit and adivasi women, women of minority communities, women in conflict situations and disabled women. In these most threatened ranks are also homeless and destitute girls and women, sex workers, and girls trafficked for sex work and domestic labour, domestic workers, and casual women wage workers, rag pickers, beggars, street vendors and others who struggle to survive against a hostile state, among many others.
The recurring sexual assaults and harassment which these vulnerable women face are not isolated incidents, but instead are grim elements of daily living, in which sexualised violence against the powerless is normalised and invisibilised. Sexual molestation is routine most nights for homeless women living on city streets, but these women fear the police the most. Dalit girls and women routinely suffer sexual abuse. Sexual exploitation is common against girls and women with intellectual disability living in institutions. Violence against women with disabilities is often lost in silences, because they are unable and powerless to communicate the acts of violence to which they are subject, and there is none to listen.
There are few protections for human rights of women in conflict areas, when they suffer sexual violence from men in uniform. Women’s bodies are used as battlefields in mass communal violence. Domestic workers have far less protection from sexual assault and harassment in the confines of their employers’ homes. Single women suffer more violence from men, because they are seen as ‘unprotected’; and the criminal justice system is even more indifferent, or actively hostile to single women survivors of violence.
Male aggressors molest and harass with impunity because they are assured that the imbedded patriarchy of institutions of the criminal justice system will protect them. But the police, prosecutors and judges often carry other prejudices in addition to patriarchy, against disadvantaged castes and tribes, minorities, single women, slum dwellers, homeless people, migrants, disabled and mentally ill people, sex workers and sexual minorities, and against the poor in general. Women survivors of violence from these sections are even more likely to face entrenched institutional biases from the criminal justice system.
We would need a new and sensitive imagination of the criminal justice system if it is to secure justice and protection to these ‘last women’ in the shadows of our worlds. A mechanism of acknowledging the special vulnerability of socially disadvantaged survivors of sexual violence should kick in from the very first act of registering the complaint, and the criminal justice system should be held legally accountable to provide adequate legal support and protection at every stage of investigation and trial to ensure that she has equal access to justice. Since her vulnerabilities are multiple, compensation should be multiple as well.
Recognising multiple vulnerabilities would also require condoning delays in registering cases and filing evidence, because the victim facing a hostile state would need to build courage to approach the judicial systems. For instance, in conflict and post-communal violence sites, women sometimes take months or even years to feel confident enough to file their complaints. Protection to security personnel by laws like the Armed Forces Act should be withdrawn, and in any case, even until such laws are in force, they should provide no protection for sexual crimes. In which moral canvas can such acts be seen in the line of duty?
The current policy of clearing the streets of vendors and chasing away other people who occupy public spaces at night makes the street more unsafe for women. A greater presence of people and well-lit public areas at night are essential in reducing the danger to women travelling to and from work as well as homeless women. All departments that deal with disability pension administration should have a clearly marked desk where people can go to report sexual harassment and assault.
Urban homeless women can never be protected from violence, unless the state has a legal duty under the law to ensure that all homeless women, as well as women survivors of violence who leave their homes, are ensured by the state of safe and dignified spaces.
The shelters for women should be open, voluntary, dignified and above all secure. This should form part of any law which aims at safety for women. The numbers of affordable student and working women hostels need to be built to ensure safe accommodation for migrant women.
The first and most urgent claims of these most marginalised and vulnerable women for safety and justice must not be forgotten. In the end, our cities and villages are only as safe as they are for the most disadvantaged and powerless woman and girl, weighed down by social oppression, poverty and disability.