A low bar: Rape survivors’ fight for justice is foiled by our legal system
Rape survivors are made to die a thousand deaths due to lack of legal support, poor counselling, insensitive lawyers and a hostile courtroom atmosphere turning the entire process into a spectacle.delhi Updated: Dec 20, 2016 09:19 IST
A rape case reaching court is not the end of a survivor’s ordeal.
Rape survivors are made to die a thousand deaths due to lack of legal support, poor counselling, insensitive lawyers and a hostile courtroom atmosphere turning the entire process into a spectacle.
When survivors seek justice, they also surrender themselves to a slew of procedures, which begin with them reporting complaints with the police. Inevitably, these processes often become the “second” rape with little done to support survivors to help them take the fight to its logical conclusion.
Over the years, there have been several decisions of the courts setting down various guidelines on how to deal with a rape survivor to make the process less traumatic. However, implementation has been very poor.
“Victims of rape have become a sort of ‘tamasha’ (spectacle),” says Dharmesh Sharma, member secretary of Delhi State Legal Service Authority (DSLSA).
The moment a survivor files a complaint, she has to deal with a counselling member of a rape crisis intervention cell of the Delhi Commission for Women, then police officers who register the first information report and medical officers for a medico-legal examination.
After all this is over, the victim has to face the local magistrate for recording her statement and then go through the trial, where she has to deal with the public prosecutor, answer the defence counsel, and the judge.
“This is a grey area… victims should not be made to speak and deal with so many people,” Sharma says.
He says the DSLSA along with DCW is currently working on a ‘one advocate’ model where the survivor is given a counsel to assist her during the entire process. This will ease the ordeal to the extent that the victim will have a dedicated person looking after the case.
The Justice Usha Mehra Commission, set up after the December 16 gang rape case to suggest measures to improve women’s safety, had said there is need for establishment of a “one-stop centre” (OSC) at a notified hospital to help victims of sexual assault and ensure speedy punishment to culprits.
It was decided the OSCs will be set up in two tiers: the first based in hospitals and the second operating from court complexes. At present, nine hospitals in Delhi have OSCs.
Sharma says the work done in the hospitals on the OSCs were “less than satisfactory”. Many of the hospitals have set up centres on the fourth or fifth floor despite being asked to set up the centre as close as possible to the casualty ward.
The victim has to run from one ward to another to get their MLC test done or submit forensic evidence. This defeats the purpose of setting up the OSCs in the first place, Sharma says.
The hospitals are also yet to appoint dedicated staff for the OSCs. During the medical exam, the victim often has to deal with a doctor who has not been sensitised.
Barring one, all six district courts in the Capital have OSCs operating in their premises. Rape survivors summoned by the court during the course of a trial can go to the OSCs and not to the court, Sharma says, a measure to prevent the victim from facing the accused.
Also, to ensure survivors are not threatened or intimidated inside the courtroom by family members or supporters of accused, the courts need to have a vulnerable witness room which provides a witness-friendly setup. The room is designed to provide protection, privacy, confidentiality and comfort to vulnerable witnesses such as rape victims and child witnesses so that they feel free to depose before the judge. The facility has a courtroom, a witness room, an accused room and a waiting room.
Under the new arrangement, witnesses can also depose through video-conferencing without facing the accused in the case.
A 2013 research paper ‘An Analytical Study of Rape in Delhi’ published in the International Journal of Education and Psychological Research (IJEPR), said majority of the victims (81%) were from lower socio-economic background.
The study said “most of the victims were illiterate or poorly educated, unmarried and belonged to the lower social segments of the society”.
Advocate Meera Bhatia, who is assisting the Delhi high court as amicus curiae in a case after the December 16, 2012, gang rape case, says compensation is vital to many of the survivors who need instant money to attend to medical needs.
The DSLSA, responsible for dispensing compensation to rape victims, said it takes about 30-45 days for a panel to clear the interim compensation amount after conducting its enquiry. Once it is done, the money is dispensed within 24 hours.
After the recent demonetisation move, the DSLSA said, there is delay in payment of compensation as bank employees are busy with cash exchange and related works. The high court then made it clear that payment of compensation has to be prioritised.
Many court judgments have reiterated that once a rape victim approaches police, they are duty-bound to inform the victim that she is entitled to an advocate who will help her in the case.
The DCW swings into action at this stage to help the victim file an FIR, seek witness protection if needed, provide counselling help to the victim and the family and the rehabilitation of the victim. “While there are new rules laid down to help victims, the implementation has to be perfect. Only then will the real rehabilitation of the victim be achieved,” Bhatia says. And we are far from that at the moment.
Liza Donnelly is a celebrated New York-based cartoonist and writer best known for her work in the New Yorker magazine.