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Crime against women: Violence within and without

Even as crimes against women are on the rise, the number of policewomen available to tackle these cases is woefully inadequate. A comment by TEJDEEP KAUR MENON.

At the receiving end.

TALK about the "fair sex" not getting a fair deal is now common. Be it enactment of new social laws, creation of institutions for target groups and even lip service about providing reservation for them in all elected bodies. Yet, there is no better evidence of the state of women's empowerment than the revealing statistics of Crimes Against Women (CAW), their handling, the profile of the victims, the accused and the disposal of the cases.

Crime against women traditionally includes rape, kidnapping and abduction, dowry death, torture, molestation, sexual harassment, importation of girls, cases under the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, Sati Prevention Act, Dowry Prohibition Act, Indecent Representation of Women (Prevention) Act. In 1999, a total of 1,35,771 such cases were reported.

Like most offences, CAW is steadily on the rise in India. Of the total crimes reported in the country seven per cent constitute CAW. The all-India rate, number of crimes per 100, 000 population reported to the police, was 13.8 during 1999. This may not be alarming at first sight but the point is many crimes are not reported.

Consider the larger picture. Of the 23 big cities, Chennai accounted for 21.2 per cent followed by Delhi at 12 per cent. Among the six metros, Calcutta is the safest for women. As much as 31.2 per cent of dowry deaths were from Uttar Pradesh alone, followed by Bihar with 15.2 per cent. But incidence of torture (under section 498 A IPC) accounted for 12.3 per cent in UP and only 3.2 per cent of cases reported in Bihar. Harassment for dowry is noticed only when the authorities are confronted with bodies of the helpless women.

In cases of rape, victims knew the offenders in 84 of every 100 cases. Neighbours were accused of rape in three of every 10 cases.

The aspirations of a woman trapped in a murderous marriage and seeking relief from its bondage do not find reflection in any of our laws. Irretrievable breakdown of marriage is not a ground for divorce in India.

Courts also use archaic methods to settle disputes over custody of children, marital property, return of streedhan, maintenance which often weigh heavily against the interests of the woman.

The absence of adequate civil courts lead many women to seek police help and exploit Section 498 A IPC to secure divorce or settlement.

A conviction of an errant husband under Section 498 A IPC does not give the woman divorce. She has to approach a civil court and also pursue the criminal case filed in a police station. If she is economically dependent on the husband and if he is imprisoned, the question of maintenance may not arise. So, women use Section 498 A IPC to redress all marital grievances for a quicker and advantageous settlement.

Acquittal/discharge in cases of cruelty by husbands and relatives is high at 81 per cent of cases. The crime rate of cases of cruelty by husband or relatives is as high as 4.4 while the crime rate for dowry death is 0.7 and sexual harassment is 0.9 in every 100, 000 population. Similarly, the arrest rate for cases of cruelty by husband or relatives is 10.3. Thus there is no single window where a woman can obtain relief on an emergency basis beginning from basic protection from violence; being turned out from the husband's home; restraining the husband from disposing of property, emptying bank lockers and accounts and depriving her of custody of her children and the right to be with them. Consequently, the harried woman is forced to agree to what is far less than her due. Most harassed women can file a criminal case under Section 498 A IPC on the charge of mental and physical cruelty and a divorce on the same grounds. But, deterred by the long time that it takes to secure the court order, she is forced to seek closure under Section 498 A IPC and settle for divorce on grounds of mutual consent. The Domestic Violence (Prevention) Bill is a significant step forward in recognising the problems of women, children and other family members living in an atmosphere of violence. When it is finally enacted, it will provide protection against domestic violence by obtaining protection, residence and monetary relief orders. However, it does not cater to the longstanding demand of women for appropriate linkages between civil and criminal law to make Section 498 A effective. At most, the portent of the proposed legislation is like providing first aid to a critical patient.

However, this temporary relief should be followed up by setting up more family courts to deal with divorce, maintenance, child custody and division of property and reverting to the spirit that led to the formation of the family courts providing early, easy solutions to domestic problems.

Now, consider this. One in every five murders in 1999 was of women. This added up to 7,812 murders that year. Personal enmity, property disputes, love intrigues, dowry and gain are the major reasons for murdering women.

Kidnapping and abduction of women account for 67 per cent of the 23,864 cases reported. A significant feature is 54 per cent of the victims were less than 18 years old.

The failure of the investigating agency can be seen from the fact that 36 per cent of the cases remained under investigation, without finalisation, till the end of the year. These are cases in which victims remained untraced or the investigation was under way to establish the charge. The police closed as many as 4,229 cases of kidnapping and abduction as false, mistake of fact or law. This signifies the shifting stand taken by the victim or her family towards the crime and the criminal in view of the existing social environment.

The number of sexual harassment cases, referred to as eveteasing in the past, rose by 10 per cent in 1999. More than 25 per cent of these cases were reported from Uttar Pradesh, followed by Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh contributing 20 per cent each. It is natural to expect a significant co-relation in the pattern of rape, molestation and sexual harassment cases reported from a State. But, this pattern is not reflected in the statistics. Madhya Pradesh recorded the largest number of rape and molestation cases but ranks much lower in the reporting of sexual harassment cases. The reason for Uttar Pradesh recording far lesser number of rapes and molestation cases than other States but recording the highest number of sexual harassment cases is an issue for serious study. This is suggestive of the failure of the criminal justice system to inspire confidence in the victims and their inability to speak out. It also raises serious doubts about the correct recording of cases as they occur and the shocking apathy to gender issues.

The significantly large number of sexual harassment cases reported from Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh are perhaps a pointer to the drive taken up by these States against gender crimes.

A study of the figures of cases reported under the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act implies that prostitution thrives in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka as 90 per cent of the cases have been reported from here.

Both, the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act and the Indecent Representation of Women Act, are comprehensive laws. But, these were made without repealing provisions in existing laws in the State and that of the Indian Penal Code. Consequently, investigating officers take advantage of the more lenient provisions of old laws to book cases. It is possible to herd a dozen women accused of prostitution and get them fined Rs. 25 each under an existing law. This is a cakewalk in comparison to the elaborate investigation required under the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act to book financiers, brokers, building owners and the clients of prostitutes.

Though the sex ratio in the country was 946 females for 1,000 males in 1951 it has worsened to 930 females for 1,000 males in 1999. What, then, has happened to our pre-natal, post-natal, nutritional support, health care and education programmes for the girl child? The deep-seated bias in India against the girl child with the availability of the most modern scientific technique to determine the sex of the foetus has resulted in large-scale female foeticide.

This is not reflected in the crime records of the country. Only 87 cases of infanticide and 61 cases of foeticide were reported in 1999. Infanticide and foeticide are a way of life in both urban and rural India and, therefore, the provisions of a progressive law like the Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques (Registration and Prevention of Misuse) Act, 1994 remains a worthless scrap of paper.

Who is a girl child? If one goes by the Juvenile Justice Act, 1986 a girl child is one below 18 years of age. The Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1928 also specifies 18 years as the cut-off age for preventing child marriage. However, for the purpose of defining rape, under Section 375 IPC, the age of consent for sexual intercourse is 16. It is time to rid ourselves of such blatant anachronism, define a girl child and shelve antiquated social laws.

Crime against women is usuallyclassified as marital and sexual crime. However, one that victimises women is robbery and dacoity. Women are prime targets because of the jewellery they keep at home.

Another area of focus is suicides. Housewives accounted for 52 per cent of the total female suicide cases. Married women account for 66.6 per cent. The complex way in which bad marriages drive women to suicide is still to be fully understood. Further, 46.8 per cent of the victims had less than middle school education. Women preferred to drown, hang or immolate themselves.

Significantly, majority of the women are between 15 and 29 years of age while male victims are between 30 and 44. Social and economic causes led most men to commit suicide while emotional and personal factors were the prime reasons with women.

All this casts heavy responsibility on women police already saddled with important tasks and issues relating to search, arrest, custody of women witnesses, arrestees and juvenile delinquents. But there is just one policewoman for every 45 policemen, a woefully inadequate 2.09 per cent of the entire police force.

As many as 18 States have a strength of less than 1,000 each. Maharashtra is in the lead with 4,345 policewomen. The share of women in armed police is 0.39 per cent. They exist only in a few states — Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Assam, Goa and Delhi. There are not enough policewomen for investigation.

In such a situation, there is no question of policewomen being available to tackle cases where the woman is the victim rather than the offender. It is time to put on the thinking caps.

The writer is Inspector General of Police (Special Protection Force), Andhra Pradesh.

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