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India’s rape cases: what has changed?

Experts weigh in on what can be done to address the complex problem of rape and its growing statistics

Image Credit: EPA
Protesters in Mumbai lit candles, during a silent protest march against the gang rape of Nirbhaya, a student, in New Delhi on December 27, 2012. The 23-year-old was gang-raped by six men on a moving bus on the night of December 16, 2012.

New Delhi/Mumbai: Voices across the political and social spectrum in India have been expressing a sense of urgency in addressing the malaise of rape and its complex socio-economic, socio-cultural and socio-political dimensions. Gulf News seeks a band-width of views on how India should find the means to deal with this problem at various levels.

Brinda Karat, Communist party of India-Marxist leader and Vice President, All India Democratic Women’s Association

“Even though the Nirbhaya incident awakened the conscience of the nation and it certainly led to a phase of outrage and protests from young people, unfortunately, [the momemtum] could not be sustained. The kind of social intervention and infrastructural support one expects for rape victims is still absent in most cases.

There is a total lack of political will on the part of the Government of India and the state governments, especially in north India, where rapes and sexual assault cases, including that of minors, occur almost daily. But it has not moved the governments to take any action. Added to this, the role of the police has only deteriorated, as they do not take immediate action. Also, the conviction rate is very low, which encourages the rapists.

One of the causative factors of a backlash against young women is because they are asserting their rights to autonomy and independence. The retrograde forces cannot tolerate this and are responsible for creating an environment in which women are seen as challenging the so-called traditions. And this is gender-, caste- and class-based. It is reprehensible because dominant cultures being promoted by those in power today see women in a stereotypical traditional role, which does not include her right to equality.

All this is evident as one notices the kind of language and comments that are made regarding a woman’s dress, her going out in the night, etc. Imagine, so many rapes, including that of minor girls, within a week in Haryana and the chief minister of the state remains silent. When he speaks, he says, he is ‘hurt’. What an appalling and absurd statement to make! Who’s bothered about his hurt? Think about the children and women who were raped.”

Shaina N C, BJP national executive member and spokesperson, Mumbai

“If there is one thing that needs to be changed [in India], it is the mindset of those who view women as nothing but objects. Every time a rape happens, we should be outraged. What is really important is fear of law, a strong conviction rate and social awareness.”

Shaina agrees that that several factors like economic disparities, unemployment, scant respect for women, male dominance and the deep impact of internet, especially when it offers access to subversive content without accountability, do lead to rising incidences of rape in the country.

Yet, she says, there is definitely a change since 2012. “First and foremost, you must understand that the increase in this crime has to be correlated with the ground situation, where you have people who don’t even talk about it and are wary about social implications are for the first time coming forward and expressing themselves. If there were no cases of rape being registered, that would be questionable. But the fact is that more and more women are reporting about rape.”

“Yes, there is a political will to control crime against women as in Mumbai and Maharashtra where CCTVs have been installed in every single place.” Video footages obtained from CCTVs are there to provide evidence to the police when required and says. Implementation of law is the key, like in the case of triple talaq which, without implementation, perpetrators cannot be checked.”

Fr Noel Pinto, Director Snehasadan, a home for homeless boys and girls

Father Noel Pinto, Director of Snehasadan, an NGO that cares for homeless, abandoned children so that they grow into responsible citizens, said, “One can’t say that youngsters from broken, poor families or unemployed youth would be prone to committing such dreadful crimes. From our experience of protecting and educating young boys till they are gainfully employed, we have never had any instance of anyone committing any serious crime, let alone rape — that is until they are under our supervision.

“The crucial and basic factor behind the disturbing incidents of crime against women is the mindset and attitude towards women in our society. Lack of respect for women and treating them as objects is the main cause and this applies to people across all strata of society. However, there are chances that if a youth is unemployed, is indulging in substance abuse or misusing internet on mobile, he could commit such a crime. But I still believe, it is the mindset that is behind such crimes.”

Seema Misra, lawyer and human rights activist

“People often say a tough law can bring about a change. But what is a tough law? Law needs to be effective and the investigating agency and prosecution more proficient and efficient. Most of the times, investigation by the police is extremely faulty either intentionally or due to carelessness. Add to that, the overburdened prosecutors and courts. So, what can one expect?

As for capital punishment, it is only posturing. The tougher the punishment, the lesser the convictions, as there’s more pressure on witnesses to retract. It’s important to note that most women rights activists did not ask for capital punishment when sending recommendations to the Justice J S Verma Committee, which was constituted on December 23, 2012, to recommend amendments to the Criminal Law.

However, what has been achieved in terms of combating the crime of rape since the Nirbhaya incident is that there is a discussion around these issues and the definition of rape was broadened. But I have a problem with clubbing of rapes. Because of giving prominence to brutal rapes, other rapes that are not as ‘brutal’ or meet the Nirbhaya standard are not taken seriously by society.

Since I am not a criminologist, I cannot say what will deter a person from committing a crime. But society needs to recognize that the Hindi movie type rape – a villain raping a girl in a desolate area is not how rape happens. Statistics show that people known to the victim commit more than 90 per cent of rapes. So, is society ready to hang fathers, relatives and neighbours?”

Flavia Agnes, noted women’s rights lawyer

“India’s laws governing incidents of rape and child sexual assault are quite good. In 2012, we changed the rape law governing children and brought in a completely new statute which provides not only stringent punishment but also has several provisions for changing the procedures to make it more victim friendly both at the time of recording the offence as well as at the trial stage. We also amended the rape law in 2013 post the Jyoti Pandey (Nirbhaya) rape and murder incident.

“What we lack is sensitivity in handling these cases. There is no one to monitor whether the state officials are doing their job as mandated by the statute. There is a big gap between the letter of the law and its implementation on the ground. So victims of sexual abuse do not get the support they need to walk the legal journey. It is a fallacy to presume that a stringent law will act as a deterrent. If India needs to stop or control these offences, our approach towards rape and child sexual abuse must change.

“We need to do a great deal of preventive work in the community and also follow the cases systematically so that the victim get justice in court and is not revictimised in the process of seeking justice.

“Today, many girls retract their statements made before the police when they come to court because they do not get any support and there is a pressure on them to retract.

“Now rape by fathers, step-fathers and family elders is increasing. This is most disturbing because most of these cases end in acquittal due to family pressure and because there is no one to stand beside her to support her. Our organisation, Majlis, provides support to victims through RAHAT programmes which aims to empower the victim and help her to understand the legal processes. This is just a drop in the ocean but more such efforts are needed on the ground to prevent rape.

“Can the prospect of severe punishment like capital sentence goad the criminal to murder to erase evidence? There is a possibility. But since our organisation does not work with accused persons, I can only surmise.”

Flavia Agnes is co-founder of Majlis, a centre providing legal services to women and children.