When laws fail to deter
Laws have failed women as has the society that awakens only when there is an excruciating crisis
Noticeably, concerns about protection and safety of women are accentuated only when heinous gender crimes are brought into the light. Law enforcing agencies plunge into action when the media cries out. Online trials, public protests, and rallies galvanise public opinion even as political blame games are not far behind in the pursuit of brownie points. Soon, the momentum is lost to focus on other 'breaking news' stories.
Public reaction to gender crimes instinctively centres around either the alleged negligence by the law enforcement machinery or on the paucity of stricter punishments and more stringent laws. Averments on both issues do not seem to stand the test of factuality, if only the undaunted spirit of police in arresting the accused, be it Asaram or Ram Rahim; and the prompt response by courts in sending them to judicial custody is taken note of. We have seen lawmakers alongside Bollywood celebs and poor criminals going behind the bars. No one is above the law; it is a matter of time though.
To be fair, the law of the land and the enforcement agencies are complimentarily alive with their punitive force as all most all reported gender crimes are registered and investigated in the normal course. Similarly, the judiciary as the last and also the best remedy for a common man has never turned down a prayer from a victim without a hearing. Thereby arises the unquestioned faith in the judiciary, notwithstanding the millions of cases pending disposal and hundreds of thousands of under-trial prisoners. Though it is understandable that 'justice delayed is justice denied' – it is equally conscientious to appreciate that 'better that ten guilty escape than one innocent suffers'. We cannot well blame the system of prosecution without appreciating the spirit of our criminal jurisprudence. However, the malaise is that the deterrent part of the laws, which actually laws are meant for, is not as evidently felt as is its punitive part. This poignant contradiction compels us to mull over the larger issue of gender equality and women's empowerment.
Laws fail to deter individual tendency to crime when traditional conformist social values embolden people to the contrary. People haven't stopped seeking dowry any less than they have stopped the harassment and violence against spouses even after the enactment of legislation. As per the official figures of 2015, among the crimes against women 'Cruelty by husband and relatives' has the highest share (35 per cent) followed by 'Assault and outraging modesty' (25 per cent). Worse is that even the educated women are targeted just as their less privileged counterparts in the country-side. Widows, divorcees, and single women, irrespective of caste or class, continue to be ostracised by the community and honour killings push our society back to the middle ages. Worse is that we are forced to hang our heads in shame with increasing incidents of child rapes. Female feticides have led to a terrible decline in our sex ratio today. Films, commercials and the entertainment industry continue their objectification as vulgarity is enjoyed as euphemistically as comedy is on prime time. The overall social environment is hostile to the cause as the society doesn't seem to have fully evolved into a civilised state. We need large-scale surgical initiatives to strike at the root of the disease.
An attitudinal transformation is necessary for a society which is indoctrinated by an unscientific value regime that sanctifies a subservient position for women. To counter the power of the value system, women need an equal share in all positions of power in public life. Such empowered numerical strength is itself a potential deterrent against gender crimes. As Shakespeare says "The fault.. is not in our stars; but in ourselves, that we are underlings.'' Hence, power to women to 'master their fate'.
But, the glass ceiling continues to deprive women of their legitimate share in many positions of power. India Ranks 148 in the world in the representation of women in positions of power. Even as less than 35 per cent women are registered in employment exchanges, less than 15 per cent are employed in the government sector. In law enforcing departments and in public administration, women's representation, though visible in absolute numbers, is extremely disproportionate even to the number of eligible aspirants – not even one-tenth of men. The story is not much different in legislatures with only 11 per cent MPs as women, against the world average of 20. Lame excuses fail to camouflage hypocrisy as the discrimination is evident. Though we failed to push through the women's reservation bill, we may, at least, endeavour sincerely to improve the above situation.
Women's empowerment is a right for women and a responsibility for men. Gender equality doesn't mean merely setting women free to fend for themselves. It is neither patronising nor 'moral policing' nor sugar-coating exploitation. Men have a responsibility to stand by women, to ensure that their legal rights fructify. To begin with, we need to free our girls from male-oriented social values in terms of dressing, food and mobility. Parents must take the call to ensure the equality of sexes in raising their family. Such a culture paves the way for greater tolerance and respect towards the opposite sex. Babas, godmen, and spiritual leaders who draw millions of followers can do better by sparing a part of the time they devote to spiritual salvation to condemn openly the gender biased values of this material world. Women leaders also rising above their party lines must accord primacy to women's issues. Concern for gender equality has to be the way of life, rather than in fits and starts. Laws deliver their intended purpose only in an environment of collective effort in support of the given cause.
(The author is a senior bureaucrat in Chhattisgarh. The views are strictly personal)