Violence against half the population of the largest democracy is touching new heights, shaming the entire society. The recent horrific incident of rape in Delhi is not an isolated one. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) says rape is the biggest crime in India with 24,206 cases registered in 2011 (22,172 in 2010). The dismal conviction rate at a mere 26 per cent between 2008 and 2011 explains the increase in rape cases. According to the NCRB, approximately 10 per cent of rape victims are below 14 years, 15 per cent are between 16 and 18 and 57 per cent are between 18 and 30.
The Constitution guarantees to all women equality, prohibition of discrimination by the state, equality of opportunity, and equal pay for equal work. It also provides for making special enactments for women and children. It renounces practices derogatory to women’s dignity and provides for just and humane conditions of work and maternity benefit. But till date, these guarantees remain a distant dream for Indian women.
Women-specific laws, namely, the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, the Dowry Prohibition Act, the Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act, the Commission of Sati (Prevention)Act, and the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act have not acted as a deterrent.
The Indian Penal Code deals with offences such as rape, kidnapping and abduction, dowry deaths, torture, molestation and sexual harassment. Under the IPC, a man is said to commit rape if the woman is under 16, with or without her consent. Marital rape is only an exception if the wife is under 15.
The Indian Evidence (Amendment) Act, 1983 provided that if a victim of custodial and gang rape states before court that she did not consent, the court shall presume that she did not consent. The Indian Evidence (Amendment) Act, 2002 provided that it is not permissible to question the prosecutrix on the general moral character. The Code of Criminal Procedure (Amendment) Act, 2005 provided for investigation of custodial rape by judicial magistrates. The recommendations of the Law Commission have been incorporated in the Criminal Law Amendment Bill 2010 to bring rape within the meaning of sexual assault.
Despite these laws, despite several women occupying high offices, Indian women continue to face discrimination and violence. Dalit women are doubly oppressed. With sexual harassment, rape, acid throwing, “honour killings,” selective abortions, bride burning, and trafficking, India has been adjudged the “fourth most dangerous country in the world for women to live in” by the Thomson Reuters Foundation Survey in 2011.
Offences against women are acts of aggression to establish that they are secondary citizens. This patriarchal culture confines a woman’s role to the family for the sake of reproduction and for accumulation of wealth, negating her contribution to the nation’s GDP. Marriage is considered the ultimate in her life. However, the need to pay dowry makes a daughter a burden, leading to sex-selective abortions and female foeticides.
The Hindu Marriage Act prescribes the age of marriage for a girl as 18 but it does not say that the marriage of a girl below 18 is either void or voidable. A woman has no right to decide her partner and those who break this rule are murdered and it is called “honour killing!”
Domestic violence is accepted meekly by most women who have no alternative. Single/divorced women are considered ‘available’. The UNICEF Report 2012 says that 57 per cent of Indian boys and 53 per cent of girls between 15 and 19 years think wife-beating is justified. The UNDP Human Development Report 2011 says India ranks 129 out of 146 countries in the Gender Equality Index, behind Bangladesh (112) and Pakistan (115).
Given this scenario, it is not surprising that rape is the biggest crime where the victim is blamed for ‘inviting’. She is often compelled to compromise by marrying the rapist. A 17-year-old girl who was gang-raped in November 2012 in Patiala killed herself on December 26 as the police, without registering her complaint, pressured her to marry one of the accused. The family often prefers not to complain of rape as prospects of marriage are considered all important. The honour of the family is more important than the honour of a woman in the family!
The neo-liberal policies of successive Indian governments are aimed at maximising private profits by reducing real wages, reducing public investment in welfare and commercialising education and healthcare. Permanent employment is transformed into part-time and casual employment, mostly filled up with women. According to the ILO, women are paid only 62 per cent of the salary of their male counterparts.
The present political system facilitates sexual objectification of women in the media. Politicians make light of rape, saying skirts should be banned. In a 1996 survey of judges in India, 68 per cent said provocative clothing is an invitation to rape. A khap panchayat in Baghpat recently barred women below 40 years from using mobile phones and from shopping. A khap panchayat in Haryana suggested reducing the age of marriage for girls to 16 to prevent incidents of rape. The comments of the RSS chief that rape is an urban phenomenon are, in effect, a clear endorsement of the rape of the poor rural and Adivasi women.
Empowerment of women is an irritant to the mindset of a patriarchal society and hence the increase in violence against women. In such oppressive conditions, the recent spontaneous protests gain significance.
Laws are redundant in the absence of social responsibility towards gender issues and the political will to implement the laws. The rampant corruption in the political system can hardly curb the crime rate. We, as a society, need to fight the decadent, patriarchal culture that considers women merely instruments of reproduction. This perception should change, in consonance with our constitutional guarantees to women because a woman is human.
( The writer is a Chennai-based advocate and treasurer of the All-India Lawyers Union. Email: gcraj@ hotmail.com )
We, as a society, need to fight the decadent, patriarchal culture that considers women merely instruments of reproduction.