India – No country for women?

17 Sep

A fast track sessions court in Delhi awarded the death penalty to the four adult rapists in the December 16 gang-rape case where a young woman was raped and brutalized by six men.  One of the culprits was a juvenile who was sentenced to three years in a remand home (the highest punishment under the Juvenile Justice Act) and the fifth died in custody.  Ironically, according to a newspaper report, of the 23 rape cases Additional Sessions Judge Yogesh Khanna (the presiding judge) heard this year, 20 of them resulted in acquittal, primarily because the evidence against them was not strong.

In another recent incident, a photo-journalist was gang-raped at the Shakti Mills compound in Mumbai giving a blow to its reputation as one of the safest cities in India for women.  It has now come to light that these men were repeat offenders having raped around 10 women including a rag picker and a sex-worker in the last six months.

And this brings us to the core of the problem – the impunity with which the men feel they can get away with sexual crimes in India.  A toxic mix of patriarchal and regressive values about women’s honour and purity, inert judiciary and an unresponsive and ill-trained police force combines to ensure that women rarely report sexual crimes.  If they do report, they are often subjected to further trauma by the police force who may refuse to file FIRs, blame the victim, and make her undergo degrading medical tests.  While collection of forensic evidence is crucial for investigating a rape, the police are hardly trained in new and scientific investigating techniques nor are there sufficient laboratories to process forensic evidence in a timely manner (see here and here).  The judiciary is also no less to blame for causing trauma to a rape survivor – whether through delays or allowing the moral character of the woman to be called into question.

In India, women are subjected to milder forms of street sexual harassment such as groping, stalking, flashing, passing lewd remarks almost on a daily basis.  In fact, such harassment is so rampant in public places that it is taken as normal.  Often women themselves are blamed for such actions.  Therefore, few women even bother to complain and treat it as something that is upto them to avoid.

The public outrage triggered by the brutal rape of December 16 in Delhi finally broke the silence and apathy surrounding these issues.  It also forced the government to set up a committee under the chairmanship of Justice J.S. Verma to recommend changes to the rape laws.   It made wide-ranging recommendations on laws related to rape, sexual harassment, trafficking, child sexual abuse, medical examination of victims, police, electoral and educational reforms.  Based on some of these recommendations, the government promulgated the Criminal Laws (Amendment) Ordinance amending the Indian Penal Code.  The Ordinance became an Act of Parliament when it was passed in the Budget Session of 2013.

However, a lot of the public debate is focussed on the type of punishment that should be meted out to rapists – castration, death penalty or life-imprisonment.  High penalty may be a deterrent only if there is certainty of prosecution, which is sorely lacking given the condition of the police and judiciary.  The data from the National Crime Records Bureau show that while registration of cases has been rising, the conviction rate remains at a low 13%-14%.  The high number of pending cases is also a cause for concern.

Table 1 provides a snapshot of the penalty levied for certain sexual crimes against women and the number of cases registered each year since 2008.  It may be noted that the new Criminal Laws (Amendment) Act, 2013 which amended the Indian Penal Code among other Acts have added new offences such as acid attack and stalking and changed the quantum of punishment in existing offences.  The data for these offences would be available from next year.

Table 1: Penalty for sexual crimes and number of cases registered

Sexual Crimes Penalty 2009 2010 2011 2012
Rape (Sec 376 IPC) 7 years to life (lower for marital rape) 21,397 22,172 24,206 24,923
Molestation (Sec 354 IPC) Upto 2 years & fine 38,711 40,613 42,968 45,351
Sexual harassment (Sec 509 IPC) Upto 1 year & fine 11,009 9,961 8,570 9,173
Indecent Prohibition of Women (Prohibition) Act, 1986 Upto 2 years & fine of Rs 2000 (increases on second offence) 845 895 453 141
Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956 Varies between 3 months to 14 years 2,474 2,499 2,435 2,563
Total crimes 74,436 76,140 78,632 82,151
Sources: Indian Penal Code; Indecent Representation of Women Act,1986; Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956; “Crime in India -2012,” National Crime Records Bureau.

Table 2 provides the data for the cases of crimes against women that were tried, convicted and acquitted since 2009.  Crimes against women include rape, kidnapping & abduction of women and girls, dowry deaths, molestation, sexual harassment, cruelty by husband and relatives, importation of girls, Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956, Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961, Indecent Representation of Women Act, 1986, and Sati Act,1987.

Table 2: Cases of crimes against women that were tried, convicted, acquitted and pending

 

Status of Cases

Year Registered Trials completed Conviction Acquittal % of convictions
2009 203,804 100,611 27,977 72,634 13.7%
2010 213,585 108,933 30,270 78,663 14%
2011 228,650 112,368 30,266 82,102 13%
Sources: “Crime in India – 2012”; National Crime Records Bureau.

As the data shows, there has certainly been an increase in registration of rape cases.  On the one hand this is a cause for concern, on the other it may be a sign that more people are coming forward to register rape cases.  Therefore, it is difficult to conclude whether the number of incidents of rape has gone up or the registration of cases has improved.  However, the high pendency in courts and the low rate of conviction point to the dire need for police and judicial reforms.  Various commissions such as the National Police Commission, the Law Commission, the Gore Committee, the Ribeiro Committee, the Padmanabhaiah Committee and the Malimath Committee have made extensive suggestions to reform the police.  However, hardly any far-reaching reforms have been undertaken to overhaul the law enforcement machinery in the country.

In order to ensure that women not only feel safe to venture unaccompanied in public places but also report crimes, the government, judiciary and civil society need to change their approaches drastically.  The government needs to muster the political will to ensure an independent, well-trained and well-equipped police force.  It also needs to legislate judiciously and ensure that the laws are implemented.  The judiciary needs to tackle pendency, fine-tune the process of selection of judges and ensure that there is better quality of judicial infrastructure and manpower.  Last but not the least, civil society is crucial for not only pressurizing the government to act but also to initiate far-reaching changes in the way women are treated in the country.

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