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Dipping conviction rate mars gains of higher rape reporting

Bringing criminals to book involves a three-stage process. One cannot be prosecuted without proper investigation, which is possible only when a crime is reported.

columns Updated: Dec 19, 2016 14:55 IST
Shivani Singh
Bringing criminals to book involves a three-stage process. One cannot be prosecuted without proper investigation, which is possible only when a crime is reported.
Bringing criminals to book involves a three-stage process. One cannot be prosecuted without proper investigation, which is possible only when a crime is reported.

It is four years since a 23-year-old physiotherapy student was fatally gang-raped with the most unthinkable brutality on a moving bus in Delhi. The country had erupted in anger and the Union government was forced to announce legal reforms: stricter penalties (even death in most brutal cases), better-defined laws on sexual assaults, and trial in fast-court cases for all rape cases.

But are women any safer today? For fear of punishment to work as a deterrent, the system needs to assert that one is unlikely to get away with rape and sexual assaults. Bringing criminals to book involves a three-stage process. One cannot be prosecuted without proper investigation, which is possible only when a crime is reported.

Read: Nothing, not even metro, can fill in for an efficient bus system

Historically a grossly under-recorded crime, rape, is certainly being reported more often in Delhi where the number of FIRs increased from 706 in 2012 to 2,199 in 2015. Till November 30 this year, already 1,981 cases of rape have been recorded. Cops attribute the rising numbers to less burking — suppression or cover-up in police parlance — and better reporting of crimes against women.

This is a welcome trend. But instead of helping create an atmosphere that allows every voiceless victim of rape to speak up, many of us tend to interpret these figures as signs of a rape epidemic or, worse still, comparative safety of our women. Even women and child development minister Maneka Gandhi, for example, tried to play down the problem last month, arguing that India ranked lowest among the four countries in the world in terms of rape cases and Sweden was at the top.”

The Swedish police do record an extraordinarily high number of rape cases simply because reforms in the sex crime legislation in 2005 widely expanded the legal definition of rape. Also, every case of sexual violence is recorded separately in Sweden.

“When a woman comes to the police and she says my husband or my fiance rped me almost every day during the last year, the police have to record each of these events, which might be more than 300 events. In many other countries it would just be one record, one victim, one type of crime,” Klara Selin, a Stockholm-based sociologist, explained to the BBC in 2012. In India, marital rape is not even a crime.

In the past, victim-blaming was often the primary police response to complaints of sexual crime. Cops also fought over jurisdiction, pushing the case to next district or thana, to keep their own records clean. Thanks to sensitisation and legal reforms — refusal to lodge a case can now invite a jail term of up to two years for a cop — today there is lesser chance of a victim being turned away.

But higher reporting of rape alone cannot secure justice. In Delhi, as the number of FIRs piled up, conviction rates in rape cases fell from 49% in 2012 to 35% in 2013 and then to 29% in 2015. It is highly unlikely that the number of false cases has gone up drastically since 2012. Evidently, the investigation and prosecution are struggling to keep pace.

Until August this year, there were 2,007 rape cases pending before Delhi’s nine fast-track courts. Out of these, 1,670 had been pending for up to three years. Worse, rape cases are usually weakened much before they reach the prosecution stage.

Read: Wanted: Political will to pay price for clean air

It turns out that the 1:200 cop-citizen ratio in Delhi — the best in India — is not good enough anymore. A single cop has to handle as many as 18-20 cases at a time. Getting women investigators for rape and molestation cases, as mandated by the new law, remains the biggest problem. There are at least 10,000 forensic samples from crime scenes that need to be tested to proceed with investigations. The police have just one forensic lab in Delhi and badly need at least four such facilities.

Of the three-leg process of justice, wider reporting of sexual crime has been made possible by Delhi Police. To ensure proper investigation and prosecution, now we need a better cop-citizen ratio, better-trained investigators, more prosecutors and judges for fast-tracking trials. Four years after December 2012, the last thing we can afford is to flaunt ‘fewer’ rapes and feign safety.

shivani.singh@hindustantimes.com