Today we celebrate International Women's Day. On this day, the debate in India primarily revolves around the question of women's safety. After the horrific gangrape in the national capital in December 2012, the issues surrounding women's safety have garnered greater media attention.
The Government of India constituted the Justice Verma Committee in the aftermath of the incident to reform the anti-rape law. After taking into account some of the recommendations made by the committee, the Parliament enacted a stringent law against sexual assault. Since then, fast-track courts have been established to hasten resolution in such cases, and many more women have come out to file complaints of sexual assault.
Although the amendments to the law have resulted in a significant rise in the number of cases registered, not all of them have stood the test of judicial scrutiny. Systemic problems remain. The Indian legal system, too, remains under pressure from increasing case load. Establishment of fast-track courts has not done enough to remedy the problem.
Unless there is constant media spotlight, cases take an average of 4-5 years to resolve. From 2012-14, 31,000 incidents of crimes against women were reported across India, resulting in only 146 convictions. Nearly a decade ago, a scheme to digitise FIRs and monitor the status of cases involving crimes against women was brought up. There has been little movement on this front, and the government would do well to include this scheme as part of its Digital India mission. Needless to say, the situation in rural India is far worse.
Various institutions, including our Supreme Court, have recommended wholesale reforms in the way sexual assault investigations are conducted. Kerala, however, went a step further and decided to establish a registry of sex offenders. The public will soon have a record of people who have committed sexual crimes. This decision came after a famous Malayalam film actress was abducted and sexually assaulted. The incident had resulted in widespread protests across the state with the Opposition and members of Malayalam film fraternity questioning the state's capacity to protect women from such heinous crimes.
What is the format of this sex registry, and how will it work? The Kerala government is yet to provide crucial details but affirmed that the records would be available for employers to profile potential job-seekers. Institutional failures (slow judiciary, poor investigative techniques, and the poor state of public records) allow offenders to hide behind the wall of anonymity giving them license to commit crimes in the future. They have not yet clarified whether names would be added to the list after a conviction or after a case is registered. It must explain its position, and ideally include only those who have been convicted by a court of law.
Despite growing public consciousness, little has been done to improve the overall plight of women in both private and public spaces. The mass molestation in Bengaluru on New Year's Eve was a stark reminder of how unsafe public spaces still are for women. Often, the general discourse on sexual violence often entails an explanation of how a woman's presence in a particular space makes her more vulnerable. In Bengaluru, one heard murmurs of "what was she doing there anyway?" considering the significant presence of drunk and unruly men on the night. The rationale being staying away from certain spaces makes one safer from sexual violence.
This is a patently wrong understanding of the dynamics involved. Incidents of sexual abuse take place at homes, public toilets, outside hostels, even public parks. Should women avoid these spaces to feel safer? There are greater socio-economic dynamics at play, and citizens must reflect on working them out. At this juncture, it is imperative to raise the issue of marital rape. Our political class remains guilty of not doing anything to amend the law on marital rape. According to Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code, "sexual intercourse or sexual acts by a man with his own wife, the wife not being under 15 years of age, is not rape". Despite the availability of data and numerous committee recommendations, the Indian government has not yet addressed the problem.
In fact, some Parliamentarians have gone on to the extent of defending this statute, by suggesting that if a law is introduced to criminalise marital rape, then the institution of marriage will fall apart. Under the guise of 'due diligence', the Centre had found a way to delay its response. Even the Justice Verma Committee had unambiguously recommended that the exception for marital rape must be removed. In its report, the committee argued that the "relationship between the accused and the complainant is not relevant to the inquiry into whether the complainant consented to the sexual activity".
Within urban spaces, one of the prime areas marked for change by the Justice Verma Committee is the public transport system. In its report, the committee highlighted the urgent need for greater safety measures for women who use public transport. Most women still use the bus, metro, and auto-rickshaw to traverse the city. There are significant differences between men and women when it comes to travel patterns. Though women assume a higher share of a household's travel burden and care-taking responsibilities, they have inferior access to both public and private modes of transport, according to the Global Report on Human Settlements. Transportation systems have unfortunately taken a long time to account for these differences
. The issue is one of political will and better policy implementation by the government (deregulating the outdated permit regulations on auto rickshaws and installing GPS systems in these vehicles, besides a complete revamp of the public bus system, among others). The emphasis must be on rethinking the way we understand public transport and the role gender plays. Speaking of technology, after the Nirbhaya incident, there was a move to set up "panic buttons" on smartphones and linking these with GPS tracking software. The Himmat app, launched in Delhi and Jaipur recently, carries the panic button feature, which is used to send a signal to the police control room, allowing it to locate the phone and its user. Only those with a smartphone can avail of this app.
On the legislative front, there are glaring inadequacies in the Centre's utilisation of Nirbhaya Fund (announced by UPA-II government, to support initiatives towards protecting the rights of women in public spaces). But the lack of a clear mechanism to operationalise the fund has meant underutilisation, even though successive governments, including the NDA government, have allocated more money. From 2013-17, the total corpus of Rs 3000 crore in the Nirbhaya Fund has remained almost entirely unspent. Women safety has barely featured in the last two Budgets. Despite proposals being received from various Ministries, such as Road Transport and Highways and Information and Technology, the sum remains criminally underutilised.
In a recent column, Rajya Sabha MP from the Trinamool Congress, Derek O'Brien, spoke of this criminal underutilisation. "The Nirbhaya Fund was meant to have an expansive agenda. It was expected to set up a National Emergency Response System (NERS). In 2014-15, Rs. 150 crore was meant to be spent on NERS, another Rs. 150 crores in 2015-16, and Rs. 300 crore in 2016-17. The actual expenditure was: Rs. 2.36 crore (2014-15); Rs. 3.23 crore (2015-16); and Rs. 26.45 crore (2016-17). Those numbers say it all.
The Nirbhaya Fund was also meant to seed the Central Victim's Compensation Fund (CVCF). CVCF initially received Rs. 200 crore from the Nirbhaya Fund to rehabilitate victims of acid attacks medically and emotionally, and allow them to pursue legal proceedings to their conclusion. However, the compensation under CVCF can be accessed only after the court passes judgement, not when the FIR is filed, or charge-sheet is finalised. Since legal cases drag on and on in our country, the victim is essentially on her own and has to find resources to get legal support," O'Brien said. These failures must be addressed soon.
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