Special Report

Securing justice for daughters is imperative

Securing justice for daughters is imperative

Sexual violence against women in India rose to the forefront internationally after the December 16, 2012 gang-rape of a paramedic student in Delhi. The protests and outrage that erupted across the country and elsewhere after the horrific sexual crime came to light were so intense and widespread that the then UPA government almost lost control over the narrative. Now, nearly five and half years after ‘Nirbhaya’, sexual violence against women is once again at the forefront of national and international protest and condemnation. April 2018 is not December 2012, but the pattern is similar. The outrage that has followed after the Kathua and Unnao incidents were reported in media may not have been as intense as it was in December 2012. But, it is a fair indication of nationwide anger against never-ending cycle of violence against women.

If the UPA government did not respond decisively to the protests in December 2012 and paid a heavy political price for it, the current government has responded with a stringent ordinance on Saturday, providing for lengthy jail terms and even death penalty for sex offenders convicted for raping girls below 12 years, while the punishment for the gang rape of a victim below 16 will be imprisonment for life. Though, the political fallout of the Kathua, Unnao, Surat and other similar recent incidents remains to be seen, one thing that’s becoming clear is that after dominating the narrative for three years of its rule, the government is clearly on the back foot now for various reasons, including Kathua and Unnao incidents.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweets frequently on issues that he considers important to speak about. But he remains silent for days and weeks when it comes to speaking out about the dangers of violence faced by women and other vulnerable sections of Indian society. Like in the past, the prime minister was silent for days but was forced to speak by the widespread protests and outrage against the Kathua and Unnao crimes. However, when he broke his silence on April 13, he spoke in broad generalities, describing the crimes as “incidents being discussed since past two days” and promised justice for the “country’s daughters”. This is the same approach that he has taken in the past while speaking about attacks and killings of people by cow vigilante groups.

To assuage public anger after the 2012 incident, the UPA government made the rape laws tighter. This time how the rule of law is implemented and justice delivered to the victims and their families remains to be seen. However, going by the increasing incidences of sexual assaults, rapes and murders, even a tough law has not proved to be a deterrent. Global data on rape has proved that capital punishment, far from being a deterrent, increases the chances of rapists killing their victims. Therefore, seeking justice is a bigger challenge for victims, particularly those at the bottom of the economic and social hierarchy. This underscores the importance of public sentiment and the role of civil society in compelling law enforcing authorities to act decisively against the accused and deliver justice to victims.

If things have not changed much in the long line of despicable crimes against women, one thing that has changed is the public sentiment against gender-related crimes. Though there is no change in ground reality, women seem to have found their voice and people have started expressing anger and demanding justice. While law enforcement is still a major problem which makes securing justice a difficult task for victims, another significant change is the amendment to criminal law in 2013 which broadened the definition of rape to include sexual assault other than vaginal penetration and made acid attack, sexual harassment, stalking and voyeurism punishable offences. Despite the threat of violence, today women bravely speak against gender discrimination and report sexual violence. This transformation in women’s attitude towards gender crime is probably the most significant change.

In a patriarchal society like India, where women are treated as an inferior gender to men, there are several challenges to securing justice against gender discrimination, violence, sexual abuse and rape. The slow pace of justice system, criminalisation of politics, lack of trust in police force, low population versus police ratio and equally adverse population-judge ratio are insurmountable challenges for ordinary women’s quest for justice. The failure of law enforcing agencies to implement the rule of law, coupled with the broken criminal justice system and high pendency rate for cases of gender crime act as perverse incentives for widespread acts of sexual crimes. Lack of political will to make the criminal justice system efficient and professionalise the police force is a major impediment to faster delivery of justice. This explains the low conviction rate for cases of crimes against women.

Rape is the fourth most common crime against women in India. According to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, 3.27 lakh cases of crimes against women were reported across the country in 2015 against 3.37 lakh in 2014. Of these, over 1.3 lakh were sexual offences, which include 34,651 rapes. In 2016, according to NCRB data, 3.38 lakh cases of crimes against women were reported, while the conviction rate was only 18.9 per cent. Over the last decade, 2.5 million crimes against women have been reported, which is an increase of 83 per cent from 2007. However, women’s rights activists are of the view that more than the increase in crime rate, this could be partly because of an increase in reporting because of greater awareness. The rate of crimes against women often moves in tandem with overall crime rates recorded across most of the major states. However, in states where the overall recording of crimes is poor, recording of crimes against women is also poor.

India has a problem with violence and sexual crimes against women. Every political party since 2012 has had women’s safety among its top five promises. The statistics from NCRB provide only a glimpse of the actual number of crimes against women and minors, as a significant number of victims still do not come forward and seek help from the police. While the issue of women’s rights, and specifically women’s safety, is slowly permeating Indian society’s consciousness, women’s safety is still very much in its infancy. Therefore, delivering justice for women is easier said than done.

ALI  Chougule is an independent senior journalist.


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