The fact that the Supreme Court issued a slew of guidelines to address eve-teasing is significant on many counts. It acknowledges the lack of a strong legal framework to address the issue of sexual harassment in public places, fixes responsibility on a range of actors, and firmly places it as a
violation of one's constitutional right. The judgement clearly states, "Every citizen in this country has right to live with dignity and honour which is a fundamental right guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution of India. Sexual harassment like eve-teasing of women amounts to violation of rights guaranteed under Articles 14, 15 as well."
The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) statistics show a 7.1% increase in crimes against women between 2010 and 2011. This is the figure for reported crimes which probably may be just the tip of the iceberg, as a majority of cases go unreported due to various reasons including lack of faith in the police system, fear of shame and lack of family support. Reports indicate that eve-teasing is a menace in all cities in India. The root problem lies in the fact that eve-teasing is often perceived as a minor offence and little is done to prevent it.
Moreover, as noted by the Supreme Court, the current legal regime of Section 294 and 509 are insufficient to deal with the problem. The term "outraging the modesty of women" is quite vague and the burden of proof lies on women, which often makes it impossible to nail the accused.
Even when convicted, the punishment is only simple imprisonment for one year or a fine. While this may be sufficient in some cases, it certainly does not apply to more violent cases that we are increasingly witnessing.
The judgement also states that even the new Protection of Women against Sexual Harassment at Workplace Bill 2012 pending in Parliament will not be enough to deal with offences in public spaces. Tamil Nadu is the only state that has an ordinance against eve-teasing, but it lacks enough teeth.
In the absence of any effective legislation, the court has directed that some steps be taken, such as increased policing at bus stands, railway stations, theatres and other public places, installation of CCTVs in strategic locations, making heads of educational institutions responsible for initiatives aimed at prevention of harassment, public messaging on the issue, affixing responsibility on staff of public transport, instituting helplines and even holding bystanders responsible.
Moreover, it is also important to note that there have also been several cases of women and men being targeted for opposing sexual harassment and molestation in public places. The murder of Reuben Fernandez and Keenan Santos after they objected to acts of indecent behaviour against their women companions in Amboli is a case in point.
This only affirms what women's groups have been advocating for many years. To address any form of violence against women, we need a multi-pronged strategy with the involvement of a range of actors.
Kalpana Viswanath works on issues of women's safety and rights in cities
The views expressed by the author are personal