Print edition : October 31, 2014

At Hutatma Chowk in Mumbai on August 23, 2013, photojournalists protesting against the gang rape of a colleague in Shakti Mills compound. Photo: Shashi Ashiwal

In collaboration with the Maharashtra government, Rahat, an organisation working for victims of sexual assault, guides them through the traumatic process of trial in rape cases.

THE only time she let her daughter out of sight was when she dropped her at school. But the supposedly secure premises of an educational establishment let her down. Her four-year-old was raped by the school watchman. Under pressure from the powerful school principal, the police refused to register a first information report (FIR). It was only when the doctors examining the girl realised what had happened that a complaint was filed. The nightmare for the mother became worse when the school leaked the story to the media, claimed the woman was insane, and alleged that she had demanded Rs.10 lakh for her silence.

“This was in 2011, the school was just behind our office and we were feeling helpless that the poor woman had too little to fight the case, which we somehow knew would go completely against her,” says Audrey D’Mello, a lawyer with Rahat, an arm of Majlis, an organisation that helps women subjected to domestic violence. “We decided to help the woman. This was the beginning of our survivor-support programme.”

A year has passed since a young journalist and a telephone operator were raped in the Shakti Mills compound in Mumbai’s busy Mahalakshmi area. The shocking incidents that came quick on the heels of the Nirbhaya case in Delhi made the residents of the city demand justice and increased safety for women.

The denouement in the Shakti Mills cases came in the form of swift and severe verdicts by a fast-track court. This mobilised the administration and got the police cracking down on many sexual assault cases. However, the fact is that there are hundreds of women who have been assaulted and are still seeking justice. Often humiliated and subjected to insensitive court proceedings, victims of rape who have to cope with a terrible crime inflicted on them also face the onerous task of dealing with investigations and trials.

It is this situation that led a team of women lawyers under the banner of Rahat to work on sexual assault cases and essentially hold the victims’ hands through the very traumatic time. Along with the Maharashtra government, Rahat has taken on the task of monitoring every reported case of rape in the city. “A victim of rape is stripped off her dignity at every stage. She needs a lot of support other than medical and legal,” says Flavia Agnes, a well-known lawyer and women’s rights activist. Agnes, who founded Majlis, says the woman or child needs an immense amount of socio-legal help to walk through the trial journey. “We decided to fill this glaring void. If we had to make a change, we needed to work with the government,” says Agnes.

A pilot project by the State government and Rahat has monitored approximately 350 cases of sexual assault. Rahat has for the past three years tracked these cases, monitored the court proceedings and has interacted with the police, the doctors and prosecutors to ensure a fair, sensitive and victim-centric approach while a rape trial is in progress. “Our aim is to help them become survivors,” says Audrey D’Mello, a lawyer with Rahat.


Additionally, the team has drafted a set of guidelines to be used by the police while investigating cases of sexual assault against women and children. For instance, if a police officer refuses to register an FIR, it is a cognisable offence. If a mentally or physically disabled (temporarily or permanently) victim wants to report the commission of an offence or an attempt to commit an offence, the recording of such information should be videographed. Further, if an offence has been committed, then the victim shall be provided first aid or medical treatment free of cost by any hospital she approaches (public or private).

A couple of measures put in place by the State government helped the initiative, says Audrey D’Mello. Most importantly, Mumbai’s Police Commissioner issued a circular to all police stations in the city, asking police personnel to follow the draft guidelines, which issue instructions on dealing with victims of rape. One of this is to go to the victim’s house and record the evidence if she calls on the 103 helpline.

“We realised that the police were not entirely aware of the provisions in the new laws, namely the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012, and the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 2013,” says Audrey D’Mello.

POCSO protects the child at every stage. According to the law, the child does not need to come to a police station to file a complaint. It can be done from the house. Special courts are set up for trials that involve children. The negative side of POCSO is that the age of consent has been raised to 18 from 16, says Audrey D’Mello. Many cases which are not rape but consensual sex make the accused guilty because of the higher age of consent and underage pregnancies.

According to Audrey D’Mello, amendments made to Section 376 (punishment for rape) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) post-Nirbhaya were expected to result in better handling of rape cases. “But there is no difference on the ground. The same meaningless methods continue. Defence lawyers continue to badger victims. Public prosecutors and even judges are insensitive. Obviously, the poorer the victim, the worse the treatment,” she says.

Audrey D’Mello says some of the biggest problems victims face are with regard to filing complaints. The police harass the victim and often call her a liar, make her wait for hours, and eventually call in the accused who continues to terrorise her.

Rahat’s intervention

Rahat contacts the victim as soon as a case is reported. Audrey D’Mello says it is not necessary that the victim always agrees to take support from Rahat. It takes a fair amount of convincing in some cases as most often there are societal pressures on the victim. This could range from a mother suppressing her child from revealing the truth about an abusive father in order to save her marriage to the stigma of going through a trial. Besides, criminal courts can daunt even a strong person and a rape victim is petrified of the idea of courts, says Audrey D’Mello.

Issues with rape are multifold. A misconception is that most rapes are “stranger rapes”. Audrey D’Mello says research shows that an overwhelming number of rape cases are “acquaintance rapes”. When we read reports on how judges asked the victim to marry the “rapist” or go back and live with the assaulter we had to do something about it, she says.

Another issue is of “genuine” and “false” cases. The latter are normally filed by a girl’s parents, most often in the case of elopement. Essentially, a third of the cases can be categorised as cases of “elopement” and another third as cases that involve “promise of marriage”.

Audrey D’Mello says the findings of Rahat match the research conducted by The Hindu—into rape trial in Delhi in 2013 (“The many shades of rape cases in Delhi”, July 29, 2014). Conviction rates have been a stumbling block in handling rape. The state believes that once the accused is convicted the job is done. Yet that it is not a solution, say lawyers.

Chilling statistics

Mumbai’s image as a safe city took a severe beating with the Shakti Mills case. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, there were 1,781 instances of crimes against women in Mumbai in 2012. This includes 234 rapes, 614 incidents of assault with the intent to outrage modesty and 235 incidents of insult to the modesty of women. There were 221 rape and 553 molestation cases in 2011, and 194 rape and 475 molestation cases in 2010.

A 10-year statistical chart from NCRB data shows that Maharashtra had 12,524 cases registered for various crimes against women. These include rape and dowry deaths. In 2013, the number rose to 16,353.

Maharashtra, however, has taken the lead in realising that there is a method to handling rape. It has launched the Manodhairya scheme that provides financial, medical and legal aid; rehabilitation; and counselling to victims of rape and child abuse. Additionally, the victim, on filing a complaint, is entitled to a relief of Rs.2 lakh to 3 lakh. This has been very successful.

More recently, the State announced the setting up of rehabilitation boards and trauma teams in every district to offer support to victims of rape, sexual assault and acid attack. The team will consist of a female counsellor, medical officers, support persons and police personnel. “It’s a start but we have a long way to go,” says Audrey D’Mello.

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