Protecting women

Published : Feb 11, 2011 00:00 IST

STUDENTS FORMING A human chain on the Marina beach in Chennai to protest against crimes against women. A file photograph. - R. RAVINDRAN

STUDENTS FORMING A human chain on the Marina beach in Chennai to protest against crimes against women. A file photograph. - R. RAVINDRAN

The criminal justice system needs immediate repair in order to curb crimes against women.

A RULING party legislator in Uttar Pradesh rapes a 17-year-old Dalit girl and thereafter slaps a charge of theft on her. The victim spends a whole month in jail on trumped-up charges. A BPO (business process outsourcing) employee in Delhi is abducted by a five-member gang, raped and abandoned on the outskirts of Delhi. An Ahmedabad teenager is abducted by the husband of her tuition teacher who lives next door and is released only after a ransom is paid. (It is an entirely another matter that the police in this case took the offender and his ally for a ride by generously mixing the ransom bundle with fake currency.) A top-ranking Indian diplomat, a member of the elitist Indian Administrative Service, beats up his wife while on a posting in London and wakes up the entire neighbourhood, which brings him to the notice of the Metropolitan Police.

Instances such as these, reported with predictable regularity, should make us sit up and ask ourselves whether we, as citizens of a country that boasts a hoary tradition of safeguarding women, are doing enough to protect women. Or have we, as in the case of corruption, given up the fight?

I am not for a moment suggesting that the incidence of crime against women and domestic violence is any higher in India than in other countries. Defensive policemen will say that India is not all that badly off compared with other nations. That is a fallacious way of tackling what is very much our own problem. We should be concerned about what is happening on our doorstep. We need to aim at zero tolerance and ward off predators so that our mothers, sisters, wives and daughters can go about their business unhindered and unharmed. It is as simple as that.

There are several ways to approach the problem. Whenever a major crime against a woman or a girl child is reported, the media lap it up and sensationalise it. The casualty is objective reporting, and there is a resultant vilification of those who are only remotely connected with the offence or the offender. Seldom have I seen a report that teaches women and children how to protect themselves. The media could do a lot by way of introspecting and fine-tuning their coverage of attacks on women.

There is a lot of hype relating to the inadequacies of the law. No law is perfect however carefully it may have been drawn up. It yields itself to poor enforcement by criminal justice agencies and to misuse, sometimes, by alleged victims and those associated with them. While the offence of demanding dowry and the violence that accompanies it are reprehensible, I would attach greater importance to crime of rape. It is the most heinous of crimes.

The experience the world over is that the offender is invariably known to the victim. This phenomenon highlights the need for women to exercise caution even while dealing with those related to them. Just a few days ago, I came across a report from Delhi stating that a retired paramilitary officer had been arrested for raping his own niece, the mother of a grown-up girl. Rapes of daughters by their own fathers are also not unknown.

It is the fundamental duty of every woman to protect herself by taking the maximum precautions even if these sometimes assume the proportions of paranoia. Here I must commend the practice of many private corporations with a huge female workforce of escorting their women employees to their homes when they have to work a late shift. This arrangement is enforced strictly by the company administration because any mishap could affect the reputation of the whole organisation. The drill has a male associate remaining in a company vehicle until the women colleagues travelling along with him are dropped off at their homes. But I know of some women employees who breach such security measures by insisting on leaving the office by themselves even at a late hour. This is dangerous conduct amounting to culpable negligence, which many a time leads to a crime on the individual.

Not many legislators are willing to concede that it is the certainty of punishment that is more important in preventing crime than the severity of the penal law. A stringent code does not mean anything unless it is practical and enforceable. This is why I am amused whenever our lawmakers demand death for sexual offenders. On paper this is a legitimate and reasonable demand. The point, however, is that to award the death penalty a judge would have to be wholly convinced that the crime had in fact been committed by the offender arraigned before the court.

What this means is that the quantum and quality of evidence needed gets pushed up greatly so as to leave no holes whatsoever in the prosecution's case. The Indian experience is that the quality of rape investigations leaves a lot to be desired for several reasons, including lack of professionalism and adequate training. Perhaps more crucial is the lack of integrity among investigators who tend to support an influential and affluent offender.

Favoured treatment

The latest horror reported from Uttar Pradesh amplifies this. A ruling party MLA almost got away with violating a Dalit girl. To cap it all, he successfully framed the victim by alleging she had stolen money and a mobile phone from his home, where she was possibly a maid. The local police were obviously in cahoots with the MLA because he is from the ruling party. But for the Opposition taking up the matter, the crime would not have come to the notice of the public. It required a Chief Minister to direct his arrest and the release of the innocent girl.

This was an instance of favoured treatment of an influential politician by the police. The police ignored the law and dragged their feet by not arresting the MLA immediately after the victim's complaint. This failure of the police to perform their fundamental duty should by itself demonstrate the futility of having severe laws to safeguard women's rights. What is required is an honest police force that is sensitive to the plight of women. Without this, nothing will be achieved through measures such as prescribing the death penalty for sex offenders.

Police inadequacies while investigating rapes and child sexual abuse are no doubt glaring. They have also received the public opprobrium they well deserve. What is not well known, however, is the arbitrariness and questionable integrity of trial judges. Many of them look anxiously for even the most trivial of inconsistencies in the prosecution's case so that they can discharge the accused. Accused persons are often given the benefit of the doubt even when there is abundant material to sentence them; this at a time when the Supreme Court has given sanction for a liberal interpretation of the rape law. The court has gone to the extent of saying that even an uncorroborated testimony of the victim is enough to sustain a conviction as long as the judge is convinced of the genuineness of the complainant. If trial judges still do not set much store by this ruling, it is a tragedy beyond words. The criminal justice system needs immediate repair if deterrence against crime, especially against women and children, is to be ensured.

It is for the higher judiciary to ponder and introduce imaginative training programmes that will generate a new mindset among trial judges. It is simultaneously necessary to identify judgments that are so lax in their reasoning that they enable predators to go unpunished. This is a task that has to be done nationally, possibly under a Supreme Court fiat with tightly worded instructions issued to High Courts and sessions courts to ensure greater professionalism during trials. In my view nothing else will work to reverse a situation that is becoming alarming.

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