(“Did you hurt a woman today/ I have to ask these obscene questions” — Ntozake Shange)

As the crime rate against women is on an upward spiral, we need to ask some uncomfortable questions. In India, sexual harassment cases have been rising above 10 per cent every year since 1999. Sixty one cases of acid attacks were reported by CSAAAW. In Andhra Pradesh alone, 12 cases of acid attacks were reported this year. Yet, such alarming statistics do not raise a public outcry. Whenever we see reports of such harried women, we merely shrug it off as yet another case of violence against women. In India, one third of women in the age group 15-49 undergo physical violence. But, appallingly, two out of three women do not share their experiences with anyone. Only two per cent of the abused women seek help from the police (NFHS final report). It is clear that the actual scenario is far worse than what meets the eye. Of the different kinds of violence women face, acid attack is the most horrendous as it leaves the victims with unimaginable trauma for the rest of their lives. The expensive reconstructive plastic surgery and post-operative care are not a feasible option for the poor women. They also become dependant on their families as employment opportunity and marriage alliances do not come by.

It is interesting to note that the perpetrators of crime were known to the victims in 84 out of every 100 case. It is usually the estranged husband or the spurned lover who refuses to take a ‘no’ for an answer from the women. There is even less sympathy from society after these women go through this traumatic experience. These crimes are not committed in a fit of passion, they are premeditated and intended to cause harm. The law enforcement agencies are found unequal to the task. The victims who go from pillar to post for justice are met with inefficiency, apathy and ignorance.

In the rare cases when the criminals are brought to book, the justice system lets them off on bail. Sometimes, it is the fear of the crime than the crime itself that traumatises women. But we do not have comprehensive laws to deal with the issue. Also, we have only one police woman for 45 policemen — a woefully inadequate 2.09 per cent of the entire police force. Before demanding new laws, we must question why the existing laws do not work. Bangladesh in 2002 came up with the death penalty for acid attacks, Qisas of Pakistan award the perpetrators the same fate as victim’s. In Iran, the penalty is that the attacker has to be blinded.

The Indian Penal Code has an insufficient Section 326A to deal with this crime. IPC (1860), Cr.PC (1973) and the Indian Evidence Act (1872) have to be amended to meet the requirements. It is heartening to note that a bill has been passed that awards life imprisonment and a fine up to Rs. 5 lakhs wherever prima facie evidence is available. Certainty in penalty will act as a deterrent. It is not the laws but our mindsets that need a transformation. The social problem has been diagnosed; a piecemeal approach will not solve the problem. The terminology ‘eve teasing’ to describe violence against women slights the abuse and harassment associated with it. Our films that depict the hero who ‘makes’ the girl fall in love with him portray an attitude that nurtures the male ego. Women are individuals with rights and men should learn to cope with assertive women. Awareness, greater sensitivity and respect towards women would go a long way in creating a secure space for women.

A value-based education, incorporating these ideals is the need of the hour. Enactment of new laws, creating institutions and lip service to provide reservation will not take care of the evil. It is time to put on our thinking caps and seriously ponder over these questions.

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