Is there any solution to this systemic rot in our society, our polity and the legal structures?

Amidst calls for lynching and a slow legal system how do we deal with rapePTI/Image for representation only
news Opinion Monday, December 09, 2019 - 15:34

The shocking rape and murder of the young vet near Hyderabad has rightly galvanised the entire country on the issue of sexual assault and murder. However, no lessons appear to have been learned by the authorities since the Nirbhaya incident seven years ago, as several more horrific incidents have been reported, including the ones at Kathua, Unnao, Muzaffarnagar and now Hyderabad.

The Nirbhaya fund was set up but has hardly been utilised. Safe City projects, mobile apps, self-defence training for women, helpline numbers… all these don’t seem to guarantee safety for women or deter men from committing violent sexual crimes against women and girls in this country.

There is certainly something rotten in the way that we as a society respond to crimes, especially of a sexual nature. The entire system seems to conspire to support the perpetrators and do nothing to protect the potential or actual victims of the crimes. Take the lax response of the local police who had been contacted by the woman's family even as the crime was being committed. They were given the run-around even as the killers were committing the crime. The entire country was up in arms against the men, who were caught after they allegedly committed the crime. But do girls and women have to be raped and die violent deaths for our police to work?

A few days later, the country woke up to the news that the four men arrested for the Hyderabad incident had all been killed in an encounter, as they had tried to escape when they were being taken to the scene of the crime for a reconstruction, as required for the investigation. 

This has predictably elicited two responses – one of elation, as the locals were demanding a public execution of the four, and the other, a more reasoned one, calling for the upholding of the rule of law. But considering that the legal process in the case of Nirbhaya’s killers is still ongoing even after seven years since the sentencing, “due process” has become a bad term. Any suggestion that “the law will take its course” is received with utter disgust and cynicism.

Perhaps rightly so. A young law student showed the courage to file a complaint of sexual assault against the head of a religious and educational institution, and we see that while she is in jail for alleged blackmail of the religious leader, he is in the comfort of a hospital in UP.

The family of a young girl, who was allegedly raped by a powerful politician in Unnao, has been hounded continuously. Her father was killed after alleged police torture and her lawyer was severely injured in the same suspicious accident that killed her aunt.  In another case from the same place, the accused, out on bail, had the temerity to set the victim on fire when she was on her way to court. It seems there is no fear of any kind for powerful perpetrators in UP’s badlands.

Way ahead

Is there any solution to this systemic rot in our society, our polity and the legal structures?

Yes. The solution is hiding in plain sight. Fast-track courts for crimes against women, especially sexual assault. We already have such courts to try economic offences, and POCSO courts to attend to cases of sexual assault on children.

Set up fast-track courts with specially trained judges and prosecutors to try these cases. The training should cover all aspects of violence against women, have up to date legal resources, and encompass innovative justice delivery with sensitivity to the lived realities of women, especially those from the marginalised and vulnerable sections of society. The legal fraternity can have a very important and positive role to play in this.

Crime prevention

Prevention of such crimes is a very important aspect. Rather than put the onus on the women, by encouraging self defence training for women and girls, it is more effective, humane and civilised to address the misogyny, casteism and communalism in our culture.

The socialisation of men and boys has to include respect for women, domestic work/labour and the rule of law. The fact that men and women are legally as well as socially equal has to be emphasised. Our education system has to incorporate such aspects at the school and secondary levels. Community and family structures have to revisit their priorities and make the necessary shifts in attitudes and norms.

At a more practical level, since many violent crimes seem to happen in areas involving roads and public spaces, the transport sector – ministry of surface transport, highway authorities, RTOs, RTCs, logistics companies etc., need to prepare and implement a gender sensitisation programme for all the personnel and human resources in their sector. It should be mandatory for their staff and contract workers to undergo gender training and have a basic of awareness of the norms, laws and provisions concerning sexual violence in the country.

The media too has a crucial role to play in this important psycho-social/ behavioural reboot in our society, which is clearly the need of the hour.

Cynthia Stephen is an independent journalist, social policy researcher and political commentator.

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