Print edition : April 11, 2003

In the absence of an adequate support mechanism and comprehensive legislation, most victims of rape suffer in silence while their violators often go away scot-free.

In New Delhi

Tailoring classes organised by Pratidhi as part of its rehabilitation programme.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

* Rukhsana (not her real name) is 13 years old, and is a resident of a slum cluster in the Dilshad Garden area of east Delhi. She is the eldest of five siblings. Her father sells artificial jewellery and other knick-knacks; her mother collects junk for sale and also works as a domestic help. A school dropout, Rukhsana used to help her mother to supplement the family income.

On the night of July 15, 2002, the teenager was called out of her jhuggi (hut) by a youth of the same locality on some pretext, and taken to a lonely spot. She was raped by at least four men, including the one who had called her out. She was left naked in a semi-conscious state, in a puddle by the railway track, grievously injured and bleeding excessively. Some children playing by the railway track discovered her in the morning and informed her parents. The police were informed, and she was taken to the Guru Tegh Bahadur Hospital, where she did not receive even first aid for over three hours. It was only after the social worker who accompanied her made a hue and cry that she was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) and a major surgical operation was performed on her. Within six months, she was back in the hospital for a second surgical procedure, in the intestine and the uterus, because the injuries were serious. Her recovery proved to be a long-drawn affair because she was very weak.

During the course of the treatment, she developed tuberculosis, and is undergoing treatment for that in another government hospital. She has stopped going to work, has withdrawn into a shell and does not communicate even with her mother. The family, which initially blamed her for the incident, laments that "all is lost" for her because she cannot marry and have children. The frequent visits to the police station and the hospital have eaten into the family's already paltry income, for which too the girl is blamed. The family barely manages to survive. And despite the fact that two of the accused are in jail, the family has no hopes of securing justice; it dreads the day when the rapists would come out of jail.

* Samresh, 13, a resident of the Farsh Bazar area of east Delhi, was raped by her father's colleague, a school chowkidar, on September 11, 2001. The crime came to light when she got pregnant. She underwent a medical termination of pregnancy (MTP). The Delhi Commission for Women (DCW), an organisation supposed to be handling women's welfare, has no schemes to assist rape victims financially. A good Samaritan came forward to help Samresh. The eldest of four siblings, Samresh is now a pale shadow of her former chirpy self. She keeps to herself, and does not go either to school or to work.

* Deepa, a 14-year-old schoolgirl in northwest Delhi, was the victim of a gang rape, which got highlighted in the media. She got thrown out of the government school where she studied; the school authorities feared she would give the school a "bad reputation". Though the girl looked only slightly withdrawn and was undergoing counselling, she burnt herself to death, about 40 days after the incident.

THESE are only some of the instances that illustrate how the system has failed rape victims. They are forced to remain victims of circumstances throughout their lives in the absence of any state mechanism to help them rebuild their lives. While some continue to lead a vegetable existence in their cocoons, others like Deepa crumble and call an end to it.

"Our criminal justice system is tilted in favour of the accused and the real victims of crime have by and large remained out of the focus of the welfare agencies, the government and the judicial system. Unlike in Western countries, in India the victims of crime, especially sexual crimes, remain neglected at every stage, be it trial, investigation or, most important, rehabilitation. The victims end up becoming mere pieces of evidence in the conviction process, with the system failing to provide them any succour to alleviate their pathetic living conditions," notes R.M. Prasad, president of the Association for Development, which runs two projects, Pratidhi and Umeed, to help victims of crime. Pratidhi is run in collaboration with the Delhi Police and Umeed with the non-governmental organisation CRY (Child Relief and You). Their main focus is on sexual crimes. The two projects cover the most vulnerable areas of Delhi as far as sexual crimes are concerned, namely the low-income-group areas and the slum clusters in east, west, northwest and central Delhi.

The need for a rehabilitation mechanism - there is none at the moment - becomes all the more important if one takes a look at the profile of rape victims. According to a study done by Pratidhi over a period of four years since 1996, 76.3 per cent of the victims of sexual abuse were below 16 years of age; of them 40.3 per cent were below 12 years and 16 per cent were below six years. The highest incidence of rape was reported in the 12-16 year age group. Over 91 per cent of these cases were reported from slums, resettlement colonies and the lower socio-economic strata of society; only 7 per cent of the cases were found to be from middle class localities and 2 per cent from upper middle class localities.

Most of the victims (over 80 per cent) were dependent on earning male members of the family. In 50 per cent of the cases the earning members were daily-wage workers, and in 31 per cent of the cases they were self-employed in occupations such as selling vegetables, pulling rickshaws or running shops. Hence an incident like rape inflicts not only physical and psychological bruises on the victim and her family, but financial damage. It means loss of earnings on days when the victim is to be taken to hospital or police stations or to courts. Besides, the social stigma attached to rape means loss of income if the victim is a domestic worker (in most cases they are) because she invariably loses her job.

"Already traumatised by the experience, their bodies brutalised and minds benumbed, it is next to impossible for the victims to restart their lives all over again if there is no support mechanism. It is such a vicious circle: the families live in claustrophobic, cluttered environments which encourage such crimes, poor economic condition makes it difficult for them to pursue the lengthy course of law to get the accused convicted, thus enabling them to go scot-free. The victims, meanwhile, get ostracised in society, are forced to live on the fringes and in extreme circumstances, and commit suicide," says Ruchi Chaudhary, a social worker with Pratidhi, who works with victims of sexual abuse.

The need for a state-supported rehabilitation mechanism for rape victims has been pointed out by various women's organisations from time to time. Even bodies such as the DCW are ill-equipped to deal with the task, primarily because they do not have enough funds and secondly because they do not have the requisite trained staff. The DCW coordinates with NGOs for the rehabilitation of rape victims in cases that come to it. "Handling rape victims requires a particular kind of sensitivity because the rehabilitation should be not only at the physical or material level, but at the psychological level too. This is because rape leaves a scar not only on the body, but on the mind. Existing government institutions like the DCW are hardly equipped for this job," says Prasad. Here, he thinks, the NGOs can fill the gap and provide a helping hand. But the problem, he says, is that unlike in many other sectors where NGOs are active, there are no big funds for this segment which makes it difficult for even the NGOs to function as effectively as they should.

The need for a proper rehabilitation mechanism was best advocated by Kiran Bedi, India's first woman officer of the Indian Police Service, and recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay award for outstanding government service. Kiran Bedi, who is currently serving at the United Nations, described rape as a "failure of the state and society in carrying out their duties properly," in an interview published in The Times of India. She said: "The criminal justice system is tardy and cumbersome and many times works more for the rights of the accused than the victim." She also said that in many cases the victims shy away from seeking police help because they are "not at all sure of the response they will get". Regarding rehabilitation measures and protection for rape victims, she said: "Unfortunately, there are no measures or schemes in practice that are worthwhile and cover all as a system."

It is not that the need for such a mechanism has been felt only by women's organisations, NGOs or women like Kiran Bedi. It has drawn the attention of parliamentarians such as K.B. Krishna Murthy, a member of the Rajya Sabha from Karnataka, who introduced a private member's Bill on the subject in the last session of Parliament. The Bill, introduced on July 19, 2002, is called " The Women Victims of Atrocities (Rehabilitation) Bill, 2002". It seeks a law to "provide for rehabilitation measures to be initiated by the state for women and girl victims of atrocities like rape, including gang rape, forced begging, prostitution or women thrown out of their households or offered as devdasi to be exploited in society, by providing vocational education, financial assistance to start their own ventures, and such other measures and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto."

Krishna Murthy was persuaded to move the Bill by the plight of rape victims who came to him seeking help. "The plight of victims of rape cannot be mitigated unless parliamentarians take up the issue, and get suitable laws legislated because bodies like the Women's Commission are only recommendatory in nature and most of the time their recommendations are either not implemented or they get bogged down in basic issues such as who will implement their recommendations," he said.

The objects and reasons, as stated in the Bill, are self-explanatory: "The women who are the victims of atrocities and exploitation often find it difficult to get employment or any kind of support either from her family or society. It is only the government that can rehabilitate such victims by providing financial assistance to them through self-employment or skill development training programmes. It is proposed that the government provide proper rehabilitation to women who are victims of atrocities and exploitation."

"Compensation should be an important component of the punishment for rape. The rapist should be made to pay a hefty fine and a part of his property should go towards the welfare and rehabilitation of his victim," says Krishna Murthy, who is hopeful that once the Bill comes up for discussion, he will find many backers for it.

It is high time the government got an institutional mechanism in place to take care of the rehabilitation of women and girl victims of crimes, which are mostly sexual in nature. Recent amendments to laws and various Supreme Court rulings have undoubtedly strengthened the mechanism for investigation and prosecution, resulting in an increase (even though minuscule) in the number of women coming forward to report cases of rape. But there is no institutionalised system for their rehabilitation. This prohibits women, in the first place, from approaching the state for help when they become victims of such crimes because, for one, they are not sure of the response they will get, and secondly, they fear the aftermath, with an uncertain future ahead of them and no support whatsoever coming their way. Over 70 per cent of the victims become "untraceable" after they take the first step of getting a First Information Report (FIR) registered. "Women victims going missing soon after the incidence of rape are a common phenomenon. Most of the time the addresses given in the FIR turn out to be fake and in other cases they simply shift their residence to another locality so that they can live in anonymity," says Prasad.

If a supportive infrastructure were available, maybe more women and girl victims of crimes would muster the courage to come forward and report. The lack of such an infrastructure forces most such victims today to continue to lead miserable lives while the accused go scot-free in most cases. Even if they are punished, the offenders have their rights protected inside the jail.

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