Culture change and law enforcement needed to make India safer for women

#CriticalThinking

Picture of Shruti Kapoor
Shruti Kapoor

Founder & CEO at Sayfty

Shruti Kapoor is an award-winning gender equality activist and founder of Sayfty

In December 2012, six men gang-raped and savagely beat a 23-year-old female medical student in a moving bus in Delhi. She succumbed to her injuries 13 days later. This horrific incident, known as the Nirbhaya case, shook many: thousands of protesters took to the streets of India, demanding justice and a safer environment for girls and women. The case gained international attention, sparked a movement and made a big impact on policy discourse in India. Still, every day, one reads about more horrific incidents of Violence Against Women and Girls (also known by the acronym ‘VAWG’).

Since the Nirbhaya case, the Indian government has proposed and implemented several policies to reduce crimes against women. But poor implementation of these policies might leave our women less safe in the long run.

The Justice Verma Committee was set up by the government in reaction to the widespread protests, with the aim of amending criminal laws to provide for quicker trials and enhanced punishment for criminals committing sexual assault of an extreme nature against women. The committee introduced a new anti-rape law in 2013, criminalising a range of sexual assaults and allowing for the death penalty.

While seemingly a step in the right direction, this law has its problems. According to the World Health Organization, some national studies show up to 70% of women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime. If a woman knows that her partner might be put to death, won’t that deter her from reporting the rape? And in 2014 Indian courts declared that marital rape is not a crime – a definitive step backwards. In a recent announcement, the Central Government told the Delhi High Court that criminalizing marital rape may destabilise the institution of marriage.

More often than not the victim is reluctant to approach a police station

While state governments were quick to announce measures for women’s safety, lack of effective and efficient implementation has failed to create the desired impact. In 2013 the then finance minister announced the Nirbhaya Fund, a corpus of 10bn rupees (about €130m) to support government and NGO programmes for women’s safety. But since then, there is no further information from the Ministry of Women and Child Development on the use of the funds by the different ministries. The fund remains unspent.

Right after the Nirbhaya case, the Indian Ministry of Road Transport and Highways announced that all cars would need to install GPS within three months. But they failed to implement this promise. By 2015 only 45,000 (out of 100,000) cars had installed a GPS. In a more recent announcement, from April 2018 it will be mandatory for all public transport vehicles to have a location-tracking device and one or more emergency buttons to alert authorities; we shall see if implementation of this measure is any more successful.

The government also set up women’s helplines, but these were understaffed due to a lack of funds and failed to achieve a measurable drop in the number of reports of rape and other sex-related crimes.

According to the Delhi police, reported crimes against women have gone up since the Nirbhaya case; cases pertaining to ‘assault on a woman with intent to outrage her modesty’ have increased by 473% from 727 cases in 2012 to 4,165 in 2016. This is due to increased reporting as a result of heightened public awareness and changes in the law that makes it an offence for the police not to record a crime when reported. But in our work at Sayfty we find that most women and girls are unaware of sexual harassment laws and their own rights. More often than not the victim is reluctant to approach a police station, deterred either by societal and family pressures or by expectations of the treatment they will receive there.

In India 95% of the police force is comprised of men. Officials are often not gender-sensitive, believing that the woman or girl incited the rape and blaming them for their clothes or the hour of the night. Regardless of the law, and even if a woman gathers the courage to go to a police station to report, it does not necessarily follow that the police will believe her and allow her to file a ‘first information report’, the initial notice of a potential crime.

We must teach our children early about the concept of setting boundaries, consent culture, and respect for all genders

To combat this, we need more women police officers in every station, and gender-sensitisation programmes should be a part of the training for all officials, irrespective of their level. Fast-track courts for gender-based violence and violations of women’s rights are desperately needed. According to Indian legal expert and human rights activist Indira Jaising, “to make women feel safer in India, there have to be corresponding changes in the way the judiciary functions and an effort to deliver justice in a speedy manner.” Judges need to be sensitised to issues of gender-justice to avoid extremely biased judgments that reinforce harmful gender stereotypes and practices.

Despite the recent horrific gang-rape cases, political leaders, spiritual gurus with large followings and other eminent people have made statements reinforcing the gender bias. Recently, in response to a case of rape and murder of a schoolgirl in Shimla, Chief Minister of the northern state of Himachal Pradesh Virbhadra Singh said, “Rape and murder happen everywhere and there is nothing new.” Such callous attitude towards incidences of VAWG should not be acceptable. Officials in positions of power and responsibility must have a zero tolerance towards VAWG. Passing insensitive statements on serious crimes against women and girls normalises the violence and sends a wrong message to society.

To increase awareness of VAWG, sex education in schools is critical. We must teach our children early about the concept of setting boundaries, consent culture, and respect for all genders. Programmes like Think Equal seek to bring about change through education. This ensures safe spaces for open dialogues and provides a support system to address the global pandemic of VAWG. Educational boards in India must be willing to disrupt the status quo and address the issue head-on.

According to the United Nations, one in three women will experience some form of sexual violence during the course of their lifetime: a global pandemic. During our workshops and interactions with women and girls, we find that while most have a story to share on sexual violence, our socio-cultural norms dissuade them from speaking up. Communities need to collectively take up the responsibility of ending VAWG. At a local level, individuals can start a campaign or volunteer with a non-governmental organisation to raise awareness of VAWG and encourage dialogue and reporting.

VAWG affects us all and so it is our responsibility to collectively work together to address it. The existing Indian laws, if implemented efficiently by credible law enforcement agencies, can protect women and girls and punish criminals. Speedy justice, independence of law enforcement agencies from political influence and transparency in the performance of all government institutions are critical elements in reducing sexual crimes and creating a safer environment for women and girls.

This article was first published in Europe’s World print issue number 35. Read more on the issue and order your copy here.

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