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A constant threat

The modernising of the economy and market-based consumerism are feeding into traditional patriarchal approaches towards women, writes Brinda Karat.

india Updated: Dec 26, 2012 20:56 IST

It is tragic but true that had the police and the government performed their duties, the 23-year-old student who was gangraped on December 16 could have been safe. Guidelines such as prohibiting tinted windows in vehicles and action against those who do not comply, which were formulated by the home ministry and the police after discussions with women's organisations, have not been implemented. The callousness is exemplified by the fact that the young woman had to go through the torture of recording her statement twice by those who should have put her interests above their inflated egos.

Yet Delhi's top police officials, who should be held accountable and punished for willful violation of the guidelines, indulge in self-praise exercises, while the home minister protects them and castigates the protesters, virtually equating them with the Maoists. The utter failure of governance and the lack of political direction of the UPA marked the events that unfolded in Delhi after the crime.

Delhi has the dubious record of registering over 600 rape cases a year and unfortunately a large number of the victims are minors. Except for protests by women's organisations, there was a deafening silence for all these years when most crimes were being committed on children and women, particularly from the working classes and oppressed castes. The outrage by protesters in Delhi is a welcome sign of breaking the silence over rape and sexual harassment of women, notwithstanding that there may be small groups of lumpen elements polluting the protests.

The courage of the survivor has struck a chord with young women. What binds them is the common experience of the indignities they face in public places. It could have happened to any one of them. The placards being carried by young women assert their identities as independent citizens with the right to dress, speak and behave as they choose. This is a spontaneous challenge to the aggressive misogyny, central to cultures in these parts of the country, where a woman is to be punished if she crosses the lakshman rekha set out for her. The thousands of young men demanding justice are also in their own way challenging stereotypes of masculinity linked with aggression and contempt towards women.

The movement to make Delhi and the country safe for women is dependent on the participation of young men. Hopefully these protests, if followed by a more structured response to educate boys and young men against male privileges, will make a lasting impact and breach the existing social sanction, overt and covert, to treat women as lesser beings.

The so-called modernising of the Indian economy and the accompanying cultures of market-based consumerism, instant gratification and the further commodification of women's bodies through demeaning advertisements feed into traditional patriarchal approaches towards women. There is still insufficient attention on how aggressive market cultures are unleashing animal spirits in social life and further damaging the integrity of a woman's body, with inadequate counter cultures to combat it.

One of the main slogans of the protesters is a demand for death penalty for rapists. This stems from frustration with the present system that produces injustice, and where there is no certainty that the criminal will get any, or adequate punishment even in the present legal framework. In the last 40 years, the conviction rate in rape cases has in fact come down from 46% to 26%. Courts are reducing punishments or not giving the minimum prescribed punishment. There are very few cases where life imprisonment for aggravated rape such as gangrape or custodial rape has been given by the courts.

The problem is further compounded by the delays in the trials since there is no time-bound framework. In 2011, there were 79,468 cases pending before the courts. Even in child sexual abuse cases the process can go on for over 10 years. The death penalty will make the courts even slower and more cautious in sentencing the accused, apart from giving the rapist an incentive to kill his victim in order to wipe out evidence.

The law must be stringent, effective and the processes of justice from the filing of the FIR to the final sentencing must be done in a time-bound manner in fast-track courts. In this particular case, the government must file the challan without any further delay and hire the best lawyers to fight the case in a fast-track court with daily hearings so that the most stringent of punishments can be meted out to the criminals, which will also act as a deterrent to potential offenders.

Such a process will bring justice to rape survivors who are by no means 'living corpses', as it was so unfortunately described by a leader in Parliament, but brave women who want to - and do - live a full life.

Brinda Karat is CPI(M) Politburo member and Rajya Sabha MP
The views expressed by the author are personal