Unfinished reform

Ayear after the brutal Delhi gang rape, institutional responses to sexual violence against women have failed to keep pace with robust efforts by civil society to sensitise the public. In its immediate aftermath, popular, city-based movements rallied around the episode to help victims shed the stigma associated with such crimes. This heightened level of awareness and community support, aided by a vigilant media, contributed to an increase in reporting on sex crimes. The ‘Nirbhaya’ movement also brought to bear on the government enormous pressure to respond strongly against sexual offenders through tougher legislation. Although the United Progressive Alliance did well to incorporate the Justice Verma Committee’s recommendation to amend the Indian Penal Code and the Code of Criminal Procedure, it has come up woefully short in implementing the new laws. The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, passed by Parliament in February this year, was notified and given effect to only a week ago. The Ministry of Women and Child Development is yet to formulate a concrete plan to utilise the Rs.1000-crore Nirbhaya Fund that was integrated into the Union Budget this year. On the other hand, State governments are yet to pull up their socks on police reform, especially on the issue of including more women in the force. Without improved policing, it is difficult to see how States can rein in gender-based violence.

The UPA is also yet to act on the Verma Committee’s recommendation to penalise marital rape under criminal law. Further, there has been no debate on the Committee’s recommendation to strip armed forces personnel of the immunity granted under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958 while investigating sexual offences. The Union government has not been the lone culprit. Despite formulating the Vishaka guidelines on sexual harassment at the workplace 16 years ago, the Supreme Court — and numerous High Courts — did not set up their own internal complaints committees until recently. The apex court recently confirmed that its former judge, Asok Kumar Ganguly, had harassed an intern, and thus abused his fiduciary position — the episode has cast the male-dominated higher judiciary in poor light. The media too have been engulfed by the scandal surrounding Tarun Tejpal, who while serving as editor-in-chief of Tehelka is alleged to have raped a journalist working for the magazine. That the guardians of democracy have come up short in their efforts to tackle sexual harassment internally is a grim reminder that the roots of this malaise run deep. The government must sustain the momentum against gender-based violence that the 2012 gang rape provoked to offer better policing and legal protection for women.