The gulf between statistics and substance is not easily bridged. The number of rape cases registered in the country may conceal the reality in two significant ways. First, only a small proportion of the rapes are reported at all. Secondly, a significant number of rape cases relate to consensual sex but have been criminalised by circumstances. > The Hindu’s six-month investigation into cases of sexual assault in Delhi has revealed that f >our of ten cases arose out of complaints by parents of girls who had eloped with boys . Another 25 per cent involved breaches of promise by men that they would marry their partners. And rape as it is conventionally understood, either by strangers or those known to victims in their family or neighbourhood, was seen only in 162 out of 583 cases registered in Delhi in 2013. Such cases resulted in a >higher rate of conviction . The association of rape in the popular imagination with predators lurking in dark lanes to prey on vulnerable women has led to a general belief that better policing and more stringent laws will be the solution. While it is entirely appropriate that women’s safety is given high priority, it is equally important to identify the strands of patriarchy discernible in the resort to complaints of rape at the instance of parents who disapprove of relationships, especially if these are inter-caste or inter-religious. If denial of freedom of choice to women in love and marriage is one issue, the disavowal of women’s agency is another.
Accounts gathered from complainants, lawyers and judges reveal that the protestations of women that they had consented to the act or eloped with the accused are disregarded so that provisions relating to statutory rape and abduction can be invoked to appease angry parents. Conviction is indeed inevitable if the girls involved are below the statutory age of consent. While some sympathetic judges used to exercise their discretion to hand down mild sentences, the much-strengthened penal law applicable since last year has made longer prison terms inevitable for statutory rape. This places a question mark on the wisdom of recent legislation raising the age of consent from 16 to 18, thereby criminalising teenage sexual activity. There is no balancing provision to distinguish sexual abuse of a minor, which ought to be dealt with sternly, from consensual sex between couples of a proximate age group. While making the country safer for women, society must move away from the inherent patriarchy behind the phenomenon. That means greater inter-generational dialogue and display of sensitivity by police officers and judges. >Scripted FIRs , mechanical resort to rape provisions and pressure on women to disown relationships are not the way.