On June 16, after a hard day’s work, L Liji (19), a salesgirl working in Varkala, a tourist hotspot in south Kerala, was on her way home. She sensed that a motorcycle-borne man was stalking her. The assailant later pounced on her. When she resisted, he rammed her with his motorcycle. Critically injured, she bled for many hours before she got medical help. Last Sunday, she succumbed to her injuries.
She’s the latest in Kerala’s long list of victims of sexual violence. Last year the state was shaken up by the brutal manner which Soumya, a commuter on the Ernakulam-Shoranur passenger train, met her end. She was first pushed out of the speeding train, then raped in the woods near the tracks. She died three days later.
Statistics show that the state’s record on crime against women is abysmal. According to the latest figures from the National Crime Record Bureau, Kerala’s rate of crime rate (number of crimes committed per one lakh population) against women is 27, followed by Delhi’s 24.6, the latter is oft maligned as India’s rape capital.
A study conducted by the Sakhi Women’s Resource Centre in Thiruvananthapuram and Anweshi Women’s Counselling Centre in northern Kozhikode shows that verbal abuse and making lewd gestures are the most common forms of sexual harassment - 80% of the respondents attest to that. Sixty percent of the respondents reported physical harassment, 26% attested to being stalked, while 21% said they had been subjected to flashing by men.
“Emotional issues are never addressed here. Sex remains a taboo leading to frustration... the frustrated to turn upon the weak,” said Maala Parvathi, a psychologist and theatre person. With the help of a leading Malayalam daily, she recently took a nightly stroll through the state capital. She has later wrote about the demeaning cat calls, jeering, lewd comments, honking and straight invitation she experienced.
“Society’s attitude towards women needs to change. Even in educated households, a woman is destined to do domestic chores. Unless we achieve an equal footing, atrocities will continue,” says Prema John, an associate professor at Government College, Nedumangad.
The state is also the biggest market for pornography. G Rejitha, project co-coordinator of Sakhi, an NGO, says, “A healthy sense of sexuality is missing here. We need measures to overcome this. In sexual offence cases, the law is tardy and society often views victims as being worse than offenders.”
PE Usha, a victim of sexual assault, recalls her bitter experience. “Once you report the offence, the first reaction is why did you do it? Society reacts in a way that she deserved it and was taught a lesson. The system is not woman-friendly at all.”
An employee of Kozhikode University says she was subjected to assault in a packed bus in 1991. She took the bus to a police station and got the offender arrested. Later, she faced a series of scandalous campaigns, which forced her to move to another department.
“For a victim, it is a double whammy. She has to face more at the hands of the system… so many suffer in silence. What we need is a speedy justice delivery system and deterrent punishment,” she said, adding that things haven’t improved in 13 years since the attack.