A woman is raped every hour in India. Fifty-eight per cent of the victims are below the age of 16. The Supreme Court must have had this in mind when it made its extraordinary judgement that a man can be convicted of rape on the basis of the victim’s testimony without evidence to corroborate the charges. Coming as this does on the heels of the government’s far-reaching proposals to amend the Criminal Procedure Code provisions on rape, victims now have a real chance of securing justice. The government had prescribed a two-month deadline on rape trial proceedings, women judges to preside over the bench, the right to record evidence at home and the right of the victim to appeal an acquittal, until now solely the prerogative of the state.
The main reason why rape cases fall by the wayside is that the victims, in most cases, are afraid to speak up. The laws have been so lax that in the absence of physical evidence of rape, defined very narrowly so far, it has been easy for lawyers hired by the accused to further traumatise the victim. Though the law is clear that rape is not merely a physical assault but destroys the personality of the victim, the manner in which legal proceedings are designed make the victim relive her pain and humiliation. In the case of children, the situation is even worse. The child is unable to show that she resisted the attempts to molest her and is also unable to understand the prurient line of questioning that characterises rape enquiries.
A study undertaken by a Delhi-based NGO showed that out of 109 judges, 50 per cent felt that child rapes were committed only by the uneducated and economically disadvantaged classes. The police too are cavalier about recording the evidence of a poor or illiterate victim.
Can the new judgement by the apex court be misused? Yes. But such is the stigma attached to rape that the chances of anyone crying wolf or trying to settle scores using this issue are minimal. The real challenge now is to generate awareness among women that the law has weighed in on their side. That they need not fear to speak up. If this is done, then we are well on our way to gender justice for this most heinous of crimes.