We are all aware of the hullaballoo following the release of a documentary India's Daughter on the infamous December 16 2012 Delhi gang rape case. The Indian government immediately swung into action by serving a notice to BBC and banned the film online as well. Even as heated debates on the convict's interview in the documentary took up the air waves and column inches, the government resolutely stuck to its guns. Around the same time, a 70-year-old nun was raped, a six-year-old girl was sexually assaulted with an iron rod and dozens of other heinous crimes against women played out. But we don't need the negative publicity, right?
India talks about empowering women. After all, hasn't this country seen countless women in positions of power, including in the chairs of prime minister, president and chief minister? The truth, though, is that these women are in no way the norm. According to a survey by Thompson and Reuters in 2011, India is perceived as the fourth most dangerous place in the world for women. This should not surprise any of us who live here. Violence against women is ingrained in our culture, it is sanctioned. Just look at the honour killings and the widespread point of view that women who transgress certain boundaries are asking for rape or death. A woman's place is in the home. Or else. But wait a minute... she isn't necessarily safe at home either.
No place for women
Not a day passes when unspeakable crimes against women are not reported from the bustling cities and villages. Or to be more specific, according to Delhi Police statistics a woman is raped every 18 hours in the national capital. New Delhi has earned the dubious distinction of being the country's "rape capital" with 1636 cases of rape reported according to NCRB, 2013 records. Mumbai, which prides itself as a safe city for women, was second on the list. Here too, the numbers incidents of rape have been on the rise in past couple of years.
"[Crimes against women] are expressions of the unequal power relations between the sexes, which evolved through legislations and social customs that have positioned women as second-class citizens."
Over the last few months, cases of rapes and assaults have made it to the headlines with alarming frequency. According to NCRB, 33,707 rape cases were reported in 2013. Out of which 8,877 were minors, 10,782 culprits were neighbours of the victim while 2, 874 were relatives including parents. These figures are underestimations as many cases go unreported due to fear of stigma and non-awareness of rights. There are also countless cases of street harassment, acid attacks, dowry deaths, domestic violence and molestation... some of these are so common that we are almost indifferent to them. While some crimes are common when women "dare" go out into public spaces (whether it's walking on the street or in a crowded bus) others take place behind closed doors.
Both dowry deaths and female suicides are connected to domestic violence. According to NCRB, 2013 West Bengal recorded largest number of domestic violence cases in India while Uttar Pradesh was responsible for the maximum number of dowry deaths. In a male chauvinist society women are even paraded naked because a man thinks that they have the right to control and punish a woman any way they see fit.
All of the above are expressions of the unequal power relations between the sexes, which evolved through legislations and social customs that have positioned women as second-class citizens. This is also glaringly evident in our skewed sex ratio. Women, many people seem to believe, don't even deserve a chance to live.
Indian women are not safe by any means. Sexual violence is a threat that looms large for transgressions ranging from daring to be out at night (as in the 2012 Delhi gangrape) to having the audacity to question a social evil (as in the case of Bhanwari Devi who was gangraped for working against child marriage practiced by the upper-castes in her village).
What does the law say?
- Article 21 of the Indian Constitution lays down the right of every person to life and liberty.
- The Indian Penal Code terms sexual harassment and assaults as an offence under Section 354A to 354D and 376A to 376D.
- The Indian government brought the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence in 2005.
- In 1992, the government formed the National Commission for Women (NCW), a separate body for protecting and promoting the interests of women.
Impediments to justice
For one, many perpetrators of crimes against women get away with relatively light punishment. The minimum sentence for a rapist is a mere seven years in prison. As for marital rape? It's not even considered a crime. Apart from that, many cases of rape go unreported, in others culprits pay a fine and walk free.
"We let such violations of human rights happen right under our noses. We are all complicit in creating this culture of fear and insecurity for women."
The manner in which some courts have interpreted the law has often proved an obstacle in justice. Problems range from poor investigations, harsh cross examinations of the victims and senseless adjournments of cases to a woman's evidence without corroboration not being considered sufficient. Women's organisations and the government intervene only if a case is high-profile or has generated media interest. The irony is that there is no pro-active step from the government or any organisation to bring a visible major policy shift with respect to law and justice.
Those of us in society, bystanders who do nothing, are just as guilty. We let such violations of human rights happen right under our noses. We are all complicit in creating this culture of fear and insecurity for women. And while there is an urgent need for judicial reforms and more stringent laws, we also need to look within and change the way we think.