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Time to change tactics?
Even for a nation increasingly inured to violence against women, the recent spate of attacks came as a shock. It is as though there is a trail of brutality stretched across the country, across regions and states, affecting women of all classes and age.
Mumbai, once considered a safe city for women, had to deal with repeated instances of rape and murder. A Spanish music student was raped in her upmarket Bandra flat, a septuagenarian widow murdered in her home and a minor sexually assaulted in a suburb - all within the first few days of this month. Last month, children as young as 13 were raped in the Haryana hinterland, a student of Bangalore's prestigious National Law School was gang-raped in an adjoining campus and a 22-year-old Cuddalore collegian had her throat slit after she resisted assault.
Sadly, in an equally disturbing trend, politicians, law enforcers - and even women leaders - have dismissed the violence, politicised it or worse, and blamed the victim.
Soon after the rape of as many as 19 girls in Haryana, hailing largely from the Dalit community, Congress leader Dharamvir Goyat insisted that 90 per cent of rapes are "consensual". Education minister Geeta Bhukal described them as "a conspiracy against the state government". Caste or community assemblies in the form of khap panchayats in the state issued diktats demanding a ban on samegotra, same-village marriages. They even blamed the growing incidence of rape on hormonal imbalances caused by eating chowmein. In some instances, the violence itself had the implicit or explicit blessing of community members.
Women's empowerment exists then only in small pockets of our society. By and large, India seems to be struggling with the fact that women are now finding their own voice. Such societal churning is resulting in a patriarchal backlash that can no longer be ignored. Is it time we shed our traditional approach towards genderbased violence as a mere policing issue?
The other disturbing fact is that the crimes against women are becoming more brutal. Victims are much younger today;they may be ruthlessly disfigured with acid as well, battered, tortured in their homes and outside, and left bleeding to die. How else do you explain the brutal death of a 10-year-old girl allegedly raped, bludgeoned to death and abandoned in a garbage bin in southeast Delhi a fortnight ago?
A woman is raped in India every 20 minutes and over four girls kidnapped per hour. According to the National Crime Records Bureau's 2011 statistics, 51 per cent more women have been raped in 2011 as compared to 2001, with West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh reporting the highest such crimes. Fewer offenders are however, brought to book with the conviction rate of rapists falling from 35 per cent in 1991 to 26 per cent in 2011.
And violence isn't restricted to sexual crimes. Cruelty by husbands and relatives has seen a 102 per cent increase between 2001 and 2011, and dowry deaths have gone up by 26 per cent rise in the same period.
What is even more worrying is that numbers may not be a true reflection of this violence. Many offences against minors for instance, are detected only when they drop out of school. The actual reality could be grimmer. Many like Madhu Kishwar, founder of voluntary organization Manushi Sangathan believe crime records in India are worthless. "It is a Herculean task to register an FIR in India. For every one crime that is registered, hundreds go unreported. The police has been dis-incentivised from registering crime because the officer whose police station registers higher crime rates will be punished and the one who fudges crime records gets rewarded, " she explains.
Sociologist Shiv Visvanathan believes the rising violence is the outcome of social transition in India, with more women acquiring an education and seeking employment. "While social legislation is moving towards more freedom to women, people want to retract and restrict women. This results in an increase in crimes against women, " he says. He predicts even more violence and unrest till society acclimatises to such change, or the law ensures zero tolerance towards such crimes.
SHIFTING THE ONUS
What mars the fight for justice is the steady stream of misogynistic comments that drive victims further into a burrow of guilt, shame and silence. Should this irresponsibility be penalised? Should we move the finger of blame away from victims and question the failure of the state to rehabilitate or compensate victims, the ineffectiveness of watchdog bodies or the longdrawn and expensive road to justice?
Reports of honour killing emanating largely from northern states of Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and some parts of Bihar led to the National Law Commission advocating a separate law to deal with this crime. It has also suggested a preventive provision prohibiting and penalising of assemblies that discuss marriage. "The state and government needs to send out the right signals. If those vested with power and authority to act against such crimes themselves display such anti-women attitudes, it doesn't inspire faith and deters women from coming forward against violence, " states Indu Agnihotri of the Centre for Women's Development Studies, Delhi.
The National Commission of Women (NCW) was set up as a watchdog to act against anyone undermining the status of women, but political interference has rendered it ineffective and no action has been taken against anyone demeaning women, says Agnihotri.
Laws meant to protect women are stringent only on paper, but gender experts point out that much collective energy is vested in generating fears of their misuse. Their implementation is inhibited by the same patriarchal attitudes. A case in point is the compensation due to rape victims. The Supreme Court issued guidelines way back in 1994 directing the state to provide monetary compensation to rape victims. It took the NCW nearly a decade to finalise a scheme promising rape victims Rs 20, 000 as financial assistance and up to Rs 50, 000 for restorative care but relief is still to trickle down to victims.
"The courts order such compensation to victims. But the state-level panels which are to disburse the funds have no allocated budget or haven't been notified about such provisions, " says women's rights lawyer Flavia Agnes who runs crises intervention centre Majlis. The dichotomy is at play at all levels. "Courts counsel women suffering from domestic violence to go back to their husbands, but there is no system to follow up what happens if the court order was reneged. "
THE WAY FORWARD
Should India then take a cue from the response systems at work in other countries and chart out a comprehensive National Action Plan to combat violence against women? A report issued by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women in 2010 points out that National Action Plans for violence against women are "a way of moving beyond reactive or piecemeal approaches. " They provide a framework to bring criminal, judicial, healthcare and social systems together, set time-bound goals for responding to violence and put into place a monitoring system for achievement of set targets. Not just developed countries, but even several developing nations, including neighbouring Sri Lanka and South Africa, have such a plan in place.
Many countries have adopted out-of-the-box solutions that may be worth emulating. Australia actively encourages men, especially members of parliament and community leaders to speak out against violence to women. Couples registering their marriages in Turkey are given awareness brochures on domestic violence laws as well as reproductive health. South Africa and Sri Lanka both involve local faith groups and community-based organisations in drawing up plans to combat violence. The NCW has recently extended a hand to the Haryana khaps but such alliances perhaps need to be formalised and extended to other states as well.
"There is a need for the government to put in place an institutional system for the annual monitoring and evaluation of legislations to track and monitor progress on implementation, " says Sushma Kapoor, deputy regional programme director UN Women, South Asia. She suggests coopting more women in law enforcement agencies.
India has made some headway with progressive legislation like the protection of children from sexual offences act, or the National Mission for Empowerment of Women, which attempts to inter-link various government departments. But a time-bound, pan-Indian holistic approach to prevent and battle such crimes is the need of the hour.
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