Deputy director, institute of correctional administration
In less than a fortnight following the International Day of Elimination of Violence against Women (November 25), there have been a series of horrific incidences of rape and brutal murders of victims in the country. The rejoicing at the Hyderabad encounter killings of the four accused in the veterinarian’s rape and murder, may help release collective frustration. But is trigger justice a substitute for substantial justice? Will society have the same response towards godmen like Asaram or the politically powerful? Amidst the public outcry and demand for lynching, even in Parliament, we are not engaging in building a system that is responsive to the victim’s needs. Set ablaze, the Unnao rape victim died while fighting for justice. Another victim from Unnao is in hospital. Is it not the duty of the State to protect its citizens? Collective soul-searching and encountering of factors for an increase in gender-based violence seem to be sidelined with theatrics getting more prominence.
A 2013 WHO report reveals that a third of all women and girls in the world experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. The social, psychological and economic costs of violence, particularly sexual violence, are enormous and have a ripple effect in society. It is time we break the construction of ‘victimness’ in female identity. The laws, criminal justice system and society itself seem to be failing women.
Is society more safe with extrajudicial methods of justice? In the Kotkhai case in Himachal, there was public outrage and a Nepalese was killed in police custody. In Dimapur, Nagaland, a mob of around 7,000 persons broke into a prison and lynched a rape accused. In both cases, they were not the real culprits. When real perpetrators get away, justice gets sidetracked.
How do nations respond to this gender violence? One reaction to the crimes against women is legislation, making stringent punishments for these crimes, the primary focus being deterrence. Post Nirbhaya, the Criminal Law Amendment Act 2013 added new offences like stalking, voyeurism and acid attack, and redefined rape, and also incorporated punishment for gangrape. It was thought that adding the death penalty would lead to deterrence. A few months later, we had the Shakti Mills gangrape case (2013), Badaun rape and murder case (2014) and the Kathua gangrape case (2018). The list of victims who did not survive to fight their battle keeps getting longer. In 2012, there were 24,923 cases of rape, and in 2016, the numbers rose to 38,947. When the crime statistics of 2017 were released in October this year, the rape cases had come down to 32,550. The headline in one paper stated that ‘India gets safer, violent crime dips’. In fact, rape was more common a crime than murder, as the rate stood at 5.2 as against the murder rate of 2.2.
What happens after the reportage of crime is also critical in a victim’s journey from being a victim to a survivor. For women to report rape, we need a sensitive policing system. Has the system reduced the re-victimisation and re-traumatisation? There are many chilling incidents that make India the least safe country for women. In order to escape accountability of crimes, perpetrators do everything to silence the victims. Victim protection scheme does not seem to have taken off.
Victims’ need for safety, privacy and shelter, are all aspects that remain largely uncovered. Out of the approved 186 Sakhi — one-stop rape crisis centres — only 79 are operational. Even these are not fully functional at some places. Even the Nirbhaya Fund that was created to firm up women’s safety has not been utilised, as over 91% of the sanctioned fund of Rs 1,672 crore to the states and UTs by the Home Ministry remains unused. Where are the staff and facilitators for sexual assault counselling?
It is not just the severity, but the certainty and swiftness of justice that ensures its efficacy. Reforms in criminal justice system are still to get adequate attention. Fast-track courts do not have regular staff, and the number of forensic labs is too less. Date-bound time limits for appeal at all levels may help expedite the process.
In over 95% cases, the accused is known to the victim. Reform beyond legislative change alone is vital. The conviction rate for rape cases remains around 32%. The number of rape convicts in prison was 10,892, and 28 159 were undertrials (prison statistics, 2017). What do we do with these offenders? Introducing the sex offender registry will have limited impact. Not every rape convict is a sex offender. We don’t have any scientific risk assessment.
While measures to strengthen the security of women are important, we need to move the focus from India’s daughters to the boys as well. It is time to tackle the rape culture, where both men and women assume that sexual violence is inevitable. The objectification of women in images, language etc needs to be stopped. Let us put an end to toxic masculinity. This is not done by guns, but emotional skills. Globally, it has been found that men are more likely to perpetrate violence if they have exposure to domestic violence against their mothers, harmful use of alcohol, unequal gender norms, including attitudes accepting of violence, and a sense of entitlement over women. Young boys need to be addressed in particular.
A scientifically proven educational programme provided to hundreds of thousands of young people in East Africa has cut the number of rapes in half. Instructors go into schools to teach boys about consent and how to stand up for women, while girls learn self-defence and how to spot risks. Spreading egalitarian gender norms along with life skills and sexuality education requires long-term commitments.
Preventing violence against women requires much more concerted efforts than just harsher laws or trigger justice. Let us challenge the gender stereotypes, discriminations and violence whenever we encounter it.
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