Nobody’s children

Nobody’s children

India’s rape shame

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Rape continues to dominate headlines in India despite stringent laws to deal with it.  Between January and June this year 24,000 cases of child rape were registered. Frightening for both children and parents. Only 911 of these cases could be decided by courts. That amounts to four percent of the pending cases.

Alarmed, a Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi made a significant departure by taking cognizance of the increasing incidents saying it would soon pass directions to ensure a concerted and clear national response to rape where there would be “zero tolerance” towards sexual assault on children. In short, meaning that offenders will not be spared.

The judgment is expected to ask both central and state governments to adopt more stringent measures to stem the problem exploding all over India. It will also examine loopholes that need to be plugged that are beyond the law.

A report presented to the chief justice, at his insistence, indicated that of the 24,000 registered cases, 11,981 were under investigation. Police have filed charges in 12,231 cases and trial has commenced only in 6,449 cases.

While it is commendable that the apex court has taken note of the rape epidemic, the stark fact is that mere laws will not help stem it. Laws make sense only when they are implemented. Incidentally, the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO) clearly mandates that trial should be competed in two months. Not one state has complied. The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013, specifies that failure by the police to register a rape complaint could attract a jail term up to two years.  No police official has been charged under this provision yet.

For instance, no action was taken under Section 166A of the Code of Criminal Procedure against police officials who took eight months to file a rape case in Lalitpur, Uttar Pradesh, as the accused was a Samajwadi Party leader. In fact, police often pressure the victim to not file a case. This is to show fewer crimes under their area or to protect a powerful or influential offender. In 2013, a 13-year-old raped by an influential man from a landowning community in Maharashtra was taken into police custody where she was pressured to withdraw the charges.

Laws are crucial, but again they are not enough to tackle something as complicated as the frequent occurrence of rape. Infrastructure to deal with the crime is crucial. The limited number of forensic laboratories hinders investigation as results are unavailable at the time of hearing, ending up with the case against the accused collapsing. It is imperative that funds be set aside to set up these labs that will provide evidence as soon as possible. More labs will ensure speedy disposal of cases.

There should be special fast track courts to deal with POCSO cases. Almost always, POCSO cases are heard in the same court as other criminal cases. The atmosphere here can be quite intimidating for a child. Ideally, they need to be heard in an environment where they could be more relaxed, less worried and feel a sense of security around them where they are being heard empathetically. Indulging in cosmetic measures like putting up colourful posters on the walls of the court hearing them is hardly going to change the way they feel.

Despite a clear legal directive to police not to delay filing of complaints of rape victims, they are often made to wait for hours at police stations to get their complaint registered. This gives enough time for the offender to destroy evidence or even intimidate the victim. Action against the police is rarely ever taken and if it is, it is only when a top functionary comes to know of it.

Attitudes have to change if the rape epidemic is to be stalled. Sexual harassment should be affirmatively discussed on every platform possible. It should start right from schools and all the way to workplaces. Managements must prominently display posters that explain what sexual abuse is, how it can be avoided and what are the legal measures and helplines available to victims.

India has a low conviction rate in India: 25.5% for rape and just under 22% for sexual assault. Victims must not feel that the criminal justice system does not deliver. Enforcing authorities must change this statistic by being pro-active.

Hold states accountable

The Centre must hold states accountable for not spending its funds to ensure that women are safe in public spaces. In the last three years, states used less than 20% of the Rs 850 crore budget allocated under the Nirbhaya Fund that supports schemes for women’s safety. Delhi used only 0.84% of the Rs 35 crore it received.

Instead of blaming girls for venturing out or wearing the clothes they like, we should be teaching our boys to respect women, shun patriarchy and misogyny. Therapists and counsellors will tell us that most abusers come from broken families, have been physically abused as children or have been raised in such a way that they are made to feel superior and can get anything they want or desire. They need to be shown another perspective and need to be healed.

Doctors should be taken to task for not following guidelines on how rape victims should be handled. Traditional healthcare systems do not stress on therapeutic care and counselling that is crucial for long-term healing.

Male-dominated Khap panchayats in North India must be legally dealt with when they attempt to protect the abuser as it has happened time and again.

Defence lawyers should not be allowed to use derogatory language to intimidate rape victims and break their resolve and shame them. This is why most of them choose not to lodge police complaints, fearing social ridicule and humiliation during cross examination.

The inexplicable world of rape survivors is pockmarked with pain, trauma, social boycott, public shaming and discrimination. With the Supreme Court stepping in to frame a tough policy, there is a glimmer of hope for them.

(The writer is a senior Delhi-based journalist)