The rape of a young woman in Delhi on December 16, 2012 has brought issues concerning women’s human rights to the forefront. The demands of groups have been varied, ranging from safety of women in public places, to education, to stringent punishment, to law reforms, to better policing with gender sensitization programmes and a wider call to exhibit a change in attitude towards women and to accept women as equals.

Rape and sexual assault on women are not new and have existed for decades. Studies reveal that a majority of rapes are committed by people known to the survivor -- her family members, friends and neighbours. Rape in custody is also a common feature and is committed mostly by the police and armed forces. Cases of rape of infants as young as two years are also reported. Besides all this there is marital rape that unfortunately does not fall within the purview of penal law.

The statistics of the National Crime Records Bureau reveal that there has been a steady increase in the number of crimes against women for the period 2007 - 2011. Rape alone has increased by 9.2% from 2010 to 2011. If this is the official figure one can understand the real figure!

The fact that the offences of rape and sexual assault are punishable under the Indian Penal Code has not deterred men from indulging in such crimes. Amendments to rape laws have been made to ensure that the survivor is able to utilize the criminal justice system to secure justice. Rape laws have been amended so that the burden of proof has shifted to the assailant to establish that he has not committed the offence; the woman’s ‘character’ is no longer an issue to record her testimony.

However the survivor is still unable to even lodge a complaint and have a FIR registered at the local police station including All Women Police Stations due to the apathy shown by the police. The lack of a survivor-friendly approach at police station and with the judiciary has also caused survivors to abandon the case mid-way. Long-drawn trials and shoddy investigations have led to the accused walking out scot free! The woes of a survivor are horrendous if she is a Dalit as she and her family are under severe threat and harassment to ‘settle’ the case at the very inception or else they incur the wrath of the police and the intermediate-caste villagers. All this has resulted in negligible conviction rates in rape cases, emboldening men to commit the offence thereby showing a steady increase in the crime rate.

In the aftermath of the rape and the death of the Delhi student, there has been a flurry of activity to introduce safety measures in public places and to amend rape laws. Two commissions headed by a retired Chief Justice of India and a retired Judge of the Delhi High Court, have been set up to examine and submit reports on safety and security of women. The chief ministers of some states like Delhi and Uttar Pradesh have immediately come out with rehabilitation package for the victim’s family. The West Bengal Chief Minister has responded with a call for stringent punishment against rapists.

The Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu has taken the lead and chalked out a 13 point plan. The Plan, while encouraging in some aspects, also raises serious concerns. While the move to have Fast Track Mahila courts in each district for offences against women and to have speedy trials is indeed welcome, speedy trials cannot compromise on fair trial and thorough investigation. Although it is encouraging to note that the investigating officers and prosecutors at these courts would be women, one is skeptical given the experience of All Women Police Stations. But what is alarming is the proposal of inhuman punishments like death penalty and chemical castration. The proposal of such punishments reveals that the state administration reads and understands the crime of rape as related to sex rather perceiving it as one of power and intimidation.

Activists who advocate the abolition of death penalty, have argued with evidence and statistics that such a penalty has not been a deterrent to crime. The Goondas Act is a preventive detention law which has been consistently misused and cannot be an answer to curtail crimes against women. To suggest that the accused should not be granted bail until completion of trial is against the principles of criminal justice system, which aims at reform and integration into society. Introducing help lines, installation of CCTVS in public places and deployment of plainclothes police are measures that may instill a sense of security among the public.

The requirement at this juncture is to adopt a multi-pronged approach to combat acts of violence against women. Structures that perpetuate discrimination against women, viz., family, market, community and the state need to be examined and addressed. Within the family, parents have the responsibility of raising the girl and the boy with equal treatment and instilling in them that stereotyping of women and their roles is not acceptable. Violence against women at home leads to a boy child following his father as a role model for treatment of all women.

In the public sphere women should not be exhibited as commodities but portrayed as persons capable of independent decisions. Media and films should play a progressive role in promoting equality between sexes rather than showcasing women as objects. The State and all the institutions have paramount responsibility of promoting substantive form of equality in all sectors. The State has to invest profusely in education which plays a vital role in bringing about attitude changes to the minds of young men and women. Human rights education and specifically women’s human rights will have to form part of the curriculum at the school and college levels. Professional and teacher training colleges and the Police and Judicial Academies need to be taught to understand women’s human rights in the right perspective.

Elected representatives need to behave responsibly while addressing women’s issues and not make snide and derogatory utterances and thereafter offer a token apology. Perhaps it is an opportune moment to call for elected representatives to attend orientation programmes on women’s human rights before they assume office.

Law reforms

There have always been knee-jerk responses to incidents of violence against women. An eve-teasing incident in Chennai some years ago resulted in the enactment of the Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Eve-Teasing Act. Other laws on violence against women have been enacted based on demands by women’s groups. The existence of such laws, which also mete out punishment, have however, not paved the way for any change. If enacting laws with penal provisions is the answer to curtail/curb offences against women, why then has the crime rate against women been on the increase ever since? Lawyers and others who use the law have repeatedly expressed that the problem is in the implementation of the law. Surely, for an effective implementation there needs to be an understanding of the principle of discrimination in its proper perspective.

Work place restrictions

The demands of leaders, including chief ministers of Tamil Nadu and West Bengal for stringent punishment including death penalty and chemical castration makes one shudder and wonder if we are moving forward! The emphasis on safety and security of women in public places alone is not the answer to curb offences against women. This may lead to women being denied night work or particular kinds of work or work in toto promoting discrimination. All the struggles for empowering women economically will be in vain if the employers use safety of women as a tool to keep them out of the workforce. Unfortunately, both the Justice J.S. Verma Committee and the Justice Usha Mehra Committed are tasked only with suggesting amendments to criminal laws relating to safety and security of women and for measures to improve the security of women without examining the structures that perpetuate discrimination. Public spaces would become a prerogative of the male with women being forced to limit themselves to places where there are CCTV installations and police patrolling.

Let there be a concerted effort by us all to look at the issue of violence against women holistically and not be carried away by demands that are suggested without any rhyme or reason. Violence against women is a product of patriarchal society that needs to be addressed. We need to challenge societal norms and standards and debunk myths about women and their roles that are deep-rooted within us. Education and training are an immediate necessity to understand equality in the proper perspective. For the victim/survivor justice has to be rendered speedily and effectively without compromising on fair investigation and fair trial. Punishment should be meted out to the guilty with a view to reform and integrate him into society and not turn him to a hard-core criminal. Remember, the criminal including a rapist is not born, we create! Let us create an environment where women share public places equally with men and let not a sector or area be out of her reach. Governments and institutions need to integrate women’s human rights in all spheres so that it is entrenched in the system. The young woman of Delhi is no longer with us but let her courage guide us to weed out the discrimination against women that is embedded in our society.

P. Selvi is an advocate with the Madras High Court and adjunct faculty, Dr. Ambedkar Law University, Chennai

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