The streets were aflame with anger, people taking on the might of an embarrassed State to protest the savage gang rape and murder of a girl who came to symbolise a beloved daughter and sister to so many Indians. The impact of her death was felt not just in India but across the world. When she finally lost her battle for life in a Singapore hospital, India seemed to go into collective mourning for the brave girl who fought so valiantly to live.
Four years down the line, the anger has gone yet the brutality with which women and girls are being attacked has increased. Take some of the recent examples. A young girl tortured and murdered in Ahmedabad, a law student killed in almost the same ghastly manner as the Delhi victim in Kerala, a girl raped twice over by the same assailants. Last year, a small girl who was raped was made to wait at an all woman police station the whole day before they deigned to file a case. A rape victim assaulted by the same man twice over has just died and a four-year-old girl was raped and thrown in a drain in Delhi two days ago. Whatever happened to the furious India which came out to protest against the Delhi rape? Have we stopped caring? It would seem so.
However indifferent public opinion is, the law has to work in favour of the victim. After the Delhi case, the Justice Verma committee came up with several recommendations on sexual crimes against women. He chiefly blamed a failure of governance. His prescience is felt today long after his death though sadly governance is still very much a casualty. The recommendations he framed have largely fallen by the wayside. In the case of rape, unlike many other crimes, it is difficult to quantify how much the law has helped. For example, stalking and voyeurism are counted as offences, which can be punishable with up to seven years in jail. But there are very few cases in which stalkers are thrown behind bars. Rather there have been more cases of stalking turning fatal.
The Justice Verma committee suggested rigorous imprisonment for seven years to life for rape. Yet from 2012 to 2013, rape cases increased by a staggering 35.2% and again by 9% in 2014. The incidence of rape in Delhi was 23.2% compared to the national average of 6.1%. The Justice Verma committee also prescribed protocols for professional medical examination. This is imperative as the evidence of rape has to be collected within 24 hours failing which it becomes medically difficult to prove the crime. In the Bhanwari Devi rape case in which a social worker who had campaigned against child marriage was gang raped in Rajasthan, the criminal justice system failed her. The judge made obnoxious remarks about her looks and age, suggesting that the rapists, an uncle and his nephews, could not have committed such a crime.
The first port of call for a woman who has been raped is the police station and it is here that awareness of the law should first be inculcated. That it hardly exists is seen in the case of the little girl who was made to wait a whole day before she was attended to. The committee was cognisant of this when it suggested that all existing appointments to the police force be reviewed to ensure that the force has the requisite moral vision. While this may be a tall order, knowledge of enabling laws for women who have been subject to rape would help in successfully framing cases against the accused.
The proposed Bill of rights for women, which would entitle women to a life of dignity and security and ensure that she has the right to complete sexual autonomy including with respect to her relationships is hardly even talked about anymore. In the case of State-sponsored violence under cover of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, the committee wanted the provision reviewed and special commissioners for women’s safety set up in conflict zones. All these could have made a difference to the sexual violence visited on women by the security and armed forces in areas where there is civil strife. Prosecutions in such cases are almost non-existent as if to suggest that unrest somehow legitimises violence against women.
There are so many other areas of sexual violence that even the Justice Verma committee has not touched upon and which need to be discussed. There was a drastic increase by 25.7% in rape by blood relatives from 2013 to 2014. And these are reported cases. In many instances, the family persuades or coerces the victim to keep quiet for fear of besmirching the family’s honour.
The momentum of the outrage over the Delhi case should have pushed the government of the day to implement some of the Justice Verma committee recommendations. But unfortunately, public anger did not translate into real action. Since then, that kind of fury which shook the government has not manifested itself.
This has emboldened misogynists and criminals who think nothing of openly harassing women in several ways. There have been many instances of men attacking women in full public view confident that they will get away with it. To make matters worse, the onus of safety is put on women with ridiculous suggestions that they dress modestly and conduct themselves in a circumspect manner.
Waiting for societal mindsets to change is a little utopian given current circumstances. But the certainty and severity of punishment will be act as a deterrent to some extent. And, of course, political will to ensure accountability among law-enforcers. The template provided by Justice Verma is a good place to start even though it has been put off for so long.