‘There is little attention to victim-centric support services’

Four years after a homicidal gang-rape galvanised momentous outrage within the country, we need to evaluate where we are in the journey for change. The protesting youth called out moralistic discourses on curfews, dress codes and victim-blaming that normalised sexual violence against women. Instead, they demanded protection of freedoms for women backed by effective gender-sensitive legal redress. The government-appointed Justice Verma committee outlined a blueprint for law reform incorporating many long-standing demands of women’s movements, some of which were enacted into the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 2013. The long-pending Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 was also passed.

The bigger picture

That winter of protests reminds us that sexual violence occurs not as ‘incidents’ brutal or otherwise. This violence is intrinsic to a male-dominated social order which normalises routine sexual aggression such as stalking as a culturally accepted sexual expression. The law, therefore, needed to name and enable action against all forms of sexual aggression, instead of focusing on peno-vaginal rape. The amendments accordingly re-framed the understanding of sexual offences – criminalising a gradation of acts inflicted without affirming consent. Thus, non-consensual penetrative sex, unwelcome sexual attention, distribution of consensually taken intimate images without permission are all now rightly recognised as offences. Affirmative consent acknowledges the subject’s agency in sexual activity without reference to notions of honour, modesty and chastity that colour legal discourse. This shift was reinforced by the outlawing of the two-finger test in medico-forensic procedures.

The law reform re-imagined legal justice in two other significant ways. It introduced accountability of public servants/ police, private and public hospitals for inaction/ disobedience of the law, and support provisions for victims and witnesses. It stipulated cost-free medical aid, monetary compensation, provisioning of support persons during trials, special educators, interpreters and the use of videography to enable participation of victims in legal proceedings (particularly those rendered vulnerable, such as children and those with disability).

Additionally, the promise of one-stop-crisis-centres per district for victims recognised the need for simultaneous psychological, legal and medical support and where necessary, the facilitation of linkages with other support services. While legislative reform may embody a quantum leap forward, statutory changes alone do not transform perceptions of duty-bearers, or facilitate legal redress as hoped. So the issue is not so much about the prevalence of sexual violence post law reform, or about the quantum of punishment in exceptional cases. Rather it is about the steps taken by the State, the judiciary, and each of the agencies tasked with implementing law.

Anecdotal evidence and micro-studies suggest that most duty-bearers lack familiarity with law reform, or with the shift in perspective that it entails. There is little attention to victim-centric support services and a scarcity of special educators and interpreters. Support persons for victims are available only on request rather than as a matter of procedural justice. Interim compensation is rarely granted, with no uniformity in compensation amounts across States.

Police inaction?

The NCRB does not collate data on the prosecution of the police for non-registration of FIRs or of private hospitals refusing cost-free treatment. The Nirbhaya Fund has seen extremely low utilisation, and the one-stop-crisis-centres were drastically reduced due to funding constraints. With notable exceptions, inquiries reveal that these centres merely conduct medico-forensic examination of rape victims. Implementation of the sexual harassment law at workplaces is even bleaker — as new mechanisms remain to be constituted. Three years on, many districts remain bereft of either the district officers or the local committees tasked with providing redress.

The gap between law and implementation is at the heart of persisting social injustices in India. Moreover, monitoring the implementation of the law is complementary to evaluating efforts towards justice. Without implementation, statutory advances alone do not upset the power relations which underpin sexual violence.

This anniversary, therefore, we must avoid seeking new promises and instead demand accountability for the implementation of the promises already made.

(The writer is the executive director of Partners for Law in Development, a legal resource group on women’s rights)

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Printable version | Apr 21, 2021 11:40:23 AM |

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