Unending rapes and murders: Time for ‘Zero Tolerance’

Last Updated 16 December 2019, 02:13 IST

The bestiality of rape and murder of yet another young woman not far from a police station in Hyderabad city is a dire reminder that we have rendered our cities and public places dangerous for women. As a society, we continue to fail our women. This must brutalise us enough to awaken us from a deep slumber and spur all of us to act. We must build a ‘Zero Tolerance’ response towards sexual crimes against women. This is the only way. A good starting point is to make our streets and public spaces safe for women. This requires a data science-based hard-headed response.

The 'Crime in India’ Report 2017, released recently by the National Crime Records Bureau after a delay of two years, points to the fact that crimes against women have shot up by over 15% between 2015 and 2017. An unconscionably high 31,237 cases of rape and 64,671 cases of kidnapping and abduction of women were reported in the country.

The majority of the cases reported were: ‘Assault on Women with Intent to Outrage her Modesty’ (21.7%), ‘Kidnapping & Abduction of Women’ (20.5%) and ‘Rape’ (7.0%). Bear in mind that a number of cases go unreported. Less known but connected crimes that ought to be taken seriously are 8,09,448 cases reported under the Liquor & Narcotic Drugs-Related Acts, constituting a crime rate - calculated as crime incidence per one lakh of population —of 68.2%. These two crime statistics are co-related.

The time for grief and lamentation, candle-light protests, and each of us - community, civil society, and government - pointing fingers at the other, is past. The time is now to implement `Zero-Tolerance’ to crimes against women, collectively.

The Justice JS Verma Committee report provides a framework for us to act. The Committee observed that rape and sexual assault are not merely crimes of passion but an expression of power. It also spelt out the other forms of sexual violence - sexual assault, verbal sexual assault, and sexual harassment - as dimensions of sexual misconduct that escalate to more heinous crimes.

The ‘Zero Tolerance’ approach should generate critical mass of public mobilisation to sustain a chain reaction on all elements of prevention and rapid response that achieve three objectives: first, to prevent eve-teasing and public harassment of women in their work-a-day lives; second, to enable state and/or community support for a rapid response to protect women from predatory risks that abound; third, to put the fear of the devil in the potential perpetrators of these crimes.

Let us be clear. This must begin by reigning in the road romeos lurking at every street corner, and those who have become habitual substance abusers, and prey on women. The first step is to understand the mind of the perpetrator, to be able to design interventions to tackle violence against women in public places and enhance their safety. Evidence suggests that the perpetrators are often substance abusers. Other factors include power and privilege, poverty and unemployment, and most important of all, the absence of the fear of the law.

Second, it is as important to understand the vulnerabilities of the women who are likely to fall prey to such predators. In many cases, the lack of access to public services such as transport, decent housing, water and sanitation, and street lighting has exacerbated the risks for the poor women and girls, concerned, leaving them vulnerable and exposed to high risk.

Third, `Zero-Tolerance’ simply means that we act at the starting point of the problem and prevent it from escalating. The process of eve-teasing progressing to worse forms of sexual harassment and eventually to rape and murder, needs to be nipped in the bud.

Sexual harassment in public spaces is a daily reality for women. It happens on the streets, in public transport, in and around schools, colleges or work places. Incidents of eve-teasing that generally include cat calls, passing lewd comments, intensify into cases of public harassment, stalking and ultimately the most heinous crime, rape.

Issue of liberty

Often seen as ‘harmless’, eve-teasing, public harassment and stalking, pose risks to the mental health and well-being of women and girls as this is also an issue of liberty. It constrains their freedom of movement - temporal and spatial - and compels them to rethink their daily lives, if only to avoid harassment.

Fourth, it is necessary to undertake a spatial and temporal vulnerability analysis of cities to identify what kind of public spaces are high-risk at what time of the day or night to be able to marshal resources to maintain `Zero-Tolerance’ law enforcement; and to ensure rapid response where the first information of the eventuality of the occurrence of a heinous crime is received.

Such a mapping of high-risk locations will enable optimal deployment of resources and enhance the effectiveness of preventive action. Since all cities operate in a resource-constrained framework, the temporal-spatial risk mapping becomes central to optimisation solutions based on computational game theory.

Finally, for `Zero-Tolerance’ to succeed, the police, the city government, and citizens must form an alliance for concerted action informed by first principles:

1. Successful interventions are those that are based on rigorous analyses of the particular factors affecting violence against women and girls in a specific context, including setting, form of violence and persons affected by the violence.

2. The state has primary responsibility for action on violence against women and girls. It needs to enforce laws, and provide efficient services to restore confidence as the guardians of the law.

3. It must be a multi-sectoral, multi-stakeholder movement to have impact. Coordinated interventions operating at multiple levels, across sectors and over multiple time-frames are necessary for great impact on tackling violence against women.

4. Community mobilization will be central to fostering and sustaining action, and building strong and inclusive social movements. It is the most effective for ensuring that our cities are safe for women.

The time for zero tolerance action is now.

(The writer is Director, Public Affairs Centre, Bengaluru)

(Published 15 December 2019, 20:22 IST)

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