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Despite Nirbhaya Fund, Government Support For Muzaffarnagar Rape Survivors Remains Abysmal

It’s a long and arduous battle for survivors.

09/02/2017 12:49 PM IST | Updated 13/02/2017 8:50 AM IST
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"Please switch on the fan," was all she said after a long pause when I asked her permission for an interview. Her face appeared morose as she lay on the charpoy in a poorly lit room that was barely furnished. Her new house stood in a Muslim colony in the Shamli district of Western Uttar Pradesh. Many riot-affected families have resettled here after being displaced from nearby Jat-dominated villages in the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots.

Chaman* had lodged a complaint with the police in September 2013, about three weeks after she was gang-raped in her home in Fugana village of Muzaffarnagar district. She was the third woman from her village to come forward to register her case, emboldened by the first two and the support of her husband. He subsequently became the pairokar (court representative) for all seven gang-rape survivors from the riots. "She's not keeping well and hasn't been the same ever since the riots," he explained before our interview began.

"They are throwing money in the form of compensation at the victims as though that would in any way rid them [the government] of their responsibility to prosecute, punish..." Vrinda Grover, lawyer

In September 2013, communal clashes between Muslims and Jat Hindus killed over 60 people and displaced tens of thousands of Muslim families. Several stories of sexual assault and violence committed on dozens of Muslim women surfaced from the relief camps. Finally, seven women came forward to file first information reports (FIRs). Their battle for justice has been an uphill one.

In December 2013, Vrinda Grover, a human rights lawyer, took up the cases of the seven survivors. On their behalf, she filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court that sought to hold the state government accountable for delays in registering FIRs, recording the survivors' statements before magistrates, conducting medical examinations and providing compensation.

In its ruling in March 2014, the court ordered the Uttar Pradesh government to pay a sum of ₹500,000 to each of the petitioners, in addition to "financial assistance for their betterment and to continue their normal avocation," within four weeks from the judgment, among other directions.

Six of the seven received their compensation amount only in May 2014, and only after repeated requests. Compared to other procedural delays, compensation was paid within a reasonable time. However, one survivor, Bano, only received compensation more than seven months after the ruling.

Bano's lawyers say that this was because her case was shut by the police in January 2014 after she retracted her statement, following threats and harassment. "They said they would hurt my son. I was scared and changed my statement. I said nothing happened. I did not inform anyone but when my husband and others found out they encouraged me to stick to the truth," she told me in July 2016.

The threats didn't just come from the accused. Bano said that the investigating officer (who was part of a government-constituted Special Investigation Cell in September 2013) had strongly discouraged her from pursuing the case against the accused.

On the direction of the Supreme Court and after repeated requests, Bano was allowed to record her statement again, this time before a female magistrate, in May, where she named all the accused.

"They merely gave us ₹5 lakh and left us. We even have to look after the security guards allotted to us." Fatima, survivor

Even though charges have not yet been filed in her case, Bano says she's had to spend a lot of money to pursue her complaint, including paying the expenses for the police personnel accompanying her to Muzaffarnagar and New Delhi. Other than her finances and morale, her livelihood and mobility have suffered greatly because of the displacement. "We used to work in the fields there. Everyone is very nice here. But I have nothing to do but to stay at home. This is a Muslim village, there is purdah here," she said.

On various occasions, the Supreme Court, while recognising that compensation by itself is not a substitute for justice, has acknowledged the need for comprehensive rehabilitation for rape survivors. A 1994 ruling, stated, "It is necessary, having regard to the Directive Principles contained under Article 38(1) of the Constitution of India to set up Criminal Injuries Compensation Board. Rape victims frequently incur substantial financial loss. Some, for example, are too traumatised to continue in employment."

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A rape survivor's resilience to seek justice and fight a long court battle can depend on the systemic and social support she receives. A 2014 Supreme Court ruling said, "Merely providing interim measures for their stay may protect them for time being but long-term rehabilitation is needed as they (Family Members) are all material witnesses and likely to be socially ostracised."

In 2016, the Supreme Court said, in a judgment in which it asked all states to formulate a uniform policy to provide compensation to survivors of sexual assault: "Indisputably, no amount of money can restore the dignity and confidence that the accused took away from the victim. No amount of money can erase the trauma and grief the victim suffers. This aid can be crucial with aftermath of crime."

"The government should give us some help. I can't go to court if I have no money. They aren't helping me and the case is going on." Aarzoo, survivor

Vrinda Grover sees the government's readiness to provide compensation as a way to avoid their obligation to deliver justice. "They are throwing money in the form of compensation at the victims as though that would in any way rid them [the government] of their responsibility to prosecute, punish and hold the perpetrators of crimes like sexual violence to account," said the lawyer who is now representing only one survivor, Ghazala, whose FIR was registered in February 2014.

The riots displaced Ghazala and her family from Lak after which they resettled in Shamli. Subsequently, though, they had to relocate to an undisclosed location following alleged pressure from the accused to withdraw the case.

On 26 May 2016, Ghazala filed an application in the Allahabad High Court for the transfer of her case from the Fast Track Court in Muzaffarnagar district to a court having competent jurisdiction adjoining Delhi. Her transfer application said, "[Ghazala] was not only brutally gang raped, but she and her infant child were threatened to death by the perpetrators, who all belonged to the dominant community. Her home and properties were looted and the State completely failed in its duties as the parens-patriae."

Ghazala and her family have had to survive a bitter winter in the relief camp, before resettling in a Muslim ghetto where they could feel safer, and then relocating again so that she could fight her case without facing intimidation. Her transfer application goes on to say, "She had to spend the amount received as compensation from the State on rebuilding her life. She and her husband continue to struggle to make ends meet. They do not have means or access to adequate health care."

"[Ghazala] was not only brutally gang raped, but she and her infant child were threatened to death by the perpetrators..." Transfer application of a survivor

The fact that some of the women changed their statement in court says a lot about the effectiveness of the security (a male gunner and a female constable) provided by the state government. Six survivors said they had to bear the additional expenses of the security personnel staying with them. Fatima, who has been making ends meet by stitching blankets during the winters for ₹3 per piece, said, "They merely gave us ₹5 lakh and left us. We even have to look after the security guards allotted to us." Her husband, a seasonal migrant labourer, has to travel outside Uttar Pradesh to find work.

Even though Aarzoo, a widow, earns a steady income of ₹3000 every month from a factory close to her house, the money is not enough for her to send her children to school and actively pursue her case in court. She said, "The government should give us some help. I can't go to court if I have no money. They aren't helping me and the case is going on."

At present, there is no uniform compensation for rape victims across the country, and every state continues to provide a different amount.

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The Indian Penal Code (IPC) and Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) do allow for gang-rape survivors' medical expenses and rehabilitation to be met by fines imposed on conviction, but there has not been a single conviction yet for the Muzaffarnagar gang-rapes. Trials in two cases have not even begun.

Section 357A of the CrPc allows courts to order compensation if cases end in acquittal and the victim has to be rehabilitated. But Dilnaz, whose case ended in an acquittal in January 2016 after she turned hostile in court, did not receive any additional compensation.

The failure to provide medical assistance and psychological care, to protect against threats, and to compensate and rehabilitate make it likely that [survivors] will continue to struggle...

Of course full reparation for a rape survivor goes beyond adequate and timely financial assistance. The UN Basic Principles and Guidelines on the right to a remedy and reparation for victims of gross violations of international human rights law states that compensation and rehabilitation must cover lost opportunities in education and employment, medical and psychological care, and legal and social services.

The Ministry of Finance established the Nirbhaya fund for prevention, protection and rehabilitation of women from sexual violence in 2013, with an initial corpus of ₹1000 crore. Under this fund, the Ministry of Women and Child Development formulated a central scheme to set up "one-stop centres" across the country to provide legal, medical and counseling support and assistance to women who faced violence in both private and public spaces.

The Central government has said that 186 one-stop centres will be set up by July 2017. But as of January, less than half that number is operational. The only functional OSC in Uttar Pradesh is in Banda, more than 600 kilometers from Muzaffarnagar city.

In November 2015, after making several complaints of threats and harassment by the accused, Chaman changed her statement in court, stating that the accused men were not the ones who raped her. The failure of the state and Central governments to provide medical assistance and psychological care, to protect against threats, and to compensate and rehabilitate, make it likely that others like Chaman will continue to struggle to navigate India's torturous criminal justice system.

*The names of the rape survivors have been changed

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