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A year after December 16: more rapes, biased courts

There is little empirical evidence to establish what has really changed in the past one year. But what is clear is that violence against women continues to increase, be it cases of kidnapping, molestation, trafficking or rape. Full Coverage | How the dreadful night unfolded

india Updated: Dec 25, 2013 11:52 IST
Saikat Datta

A 23-year-old physiotherapy student was raped on a moving bus on a Sunday night in Delhi on December 16, 2012. She was beaten with an iron rod and her intestines ripped out. Doctors said they had never seen such brutality. Hindustan Times tracks how this incident outraged people, the action taken to ensure safety for women and what the road ahead should be.

Cops who have served in the badlands of Ballia regard it as one of their toughest assignments. They say that for the natives of this eastern Uttar Pradesh district, courage comes naturally.

It is no surprise then that Ballia's daughter - the 23-year-old paramedic who put up a brave fight for her life -- inspired India into putting its foot down when it came to crime against women. Protests erupted with unprecedented fury, lawmakers worked with rare alacrity and the police learnt lessons that had been hard to teach for a long time.

There is little empirical evidence to ascertain what has really changed, particularly because exact data to make such a conclusion is not available. But it is clear at the outset that violence against women continues to increase every year. The dreadful night |Fullcoverage

Read: Society has to learn to treat rape victims with respect: Usha Mehra

Between 2001 and 2012, the number of alleged crimes against women has shot up by over a lakh. Cases of rape, kidnapping, assault, molestation and trafficking made up for 244,270 cases registered in 2012. Of these, over a tenth - 24,923 cases - were that of alleged rape.


As India's creaking law and order machinery tries to cope with such crimes, it's important to look at what goes on in the courtrooms.

Read: Two other rape cases on Dec 16 that were never reported

A study on rape convictions by Prof Mrinal Satish of the National Law University, Delhi, throws up some seminal findings. Satish found that perceived notions of "chastity, virginity and marriageability" were factors for sentencing. The findings exposed how deep-rooted biases against women affected punishments for rape.

Popular notions, the study said, "consider rape a fate worse than death." Notions of chastity, modesty, and social standing were given significant consideration in how a case was seen. If any of those attributes were successfully attacked, the convicts secured lighter sentences. "In cases where the woman's behaviour did not adhere to stereotypical constructs, the men who raped them ended up getting lower sentences," the study noted.

Read: Delhi sees 125% jump in number of rape cases since December 16 rape case

One of the common ways to attack a victim's modesty and chastity is by pointing to her sexuality. If it is established she was "sexually active" before rape, the convicts get shorter terms.

Social standing too has been a factor. Even the Supreme Court has noted over multiple cases that rape lowers the marriage prospects for a victim. While this was probably true, its corollary meant a married woman would see her rapists get away with a lighter sentence. In the case of 'Baldev Singh Vs Union of India' the Supreme Court decreased the sentence because the victim had since married.

Similarly, a misplaced theme of "shame" has time and again been a factor with one court calling rape a "deep sense of deathless shame." While the court's observation was may have had noble motivations, a subjective view on shame has the potential to trivialise a rape if a court were to doubt a victim's moral integrity.

Encouragingly, things are looking up in urban segments. Drawing room and office cubicle conversations are changing and hopefully, so are attitudes. There is growing awareness of what constitutes rape. But as the sexual assault on a young journalist from news magazine Tehelka last month revealed, such wrongs can happen to even the most empowered of women.