‘Me Too’ said countless women: But why do so few cases of sexual abuse go to cops?

Top police officers tell TNM that while women aren’t unwilling to go to the police, what stops them is fear. Fear of what? Read on.
‘Me Too’ said countless women: But why do so few cases of sexual abuse go to cops?
‘Me Too’ said countless women: But why do so few cases of sexual abuse go to cops?
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In January this year, a Dalit family in Kerala’s Wayalar was plunged into grief, and the incident that left the family distraught left the world stunned: A little girl, just 11 years old, decided to kill herself. The reason was sexual abuse by persons close to the family - and while the girl’s mother knew about it, she decided not to file a police complaint against. A decision that proved much more costly to the family, as 52 days later, the little girl’s younger sister - a nine-year-old - decided to take her life as well. Police investigation says that she, too, was sexually abused.

For the parents who lost both their kids, the events were devastating. But why didn’t the mother, who knew about the sexual abuse of the elder daughter - knew that there was a predator in the family - decide to keep quiet till her younger daughter, too, fell prey?

Why don’t women and girls who are sexually abused - and the families of these survivors and victims - speak out and seek legal recourse?

When so many women have come out to led their voice against sexual abuse and harassment in the recent ‘Me Too’ campaign, why is it that so few of us actually file complaints?

One reason, say experts, is because in most cases, the perpetrator is known to the victim.

Ajeetha Begum, the Kollam Police Commissioner, tells TNM,  ”We noticed that (in many cases), these criminals were very close family members, or were neighbours. Someone who is very intimate with the family.” This is especially true in the case of children, says Ajeetha. “They molest the children inside the house,” she says.

The Commissioner’s claim is backed by data from the National Crime Records Bureau and by various studies. According to NCRB, in the year 2015, 95.5% of all rape victims in India knew the perpetrator. Considering not every incident of rape is reported, and that when perpetrators are known to the victim, the reporting goes down considerably, this statistic is doubly alarming.

But the fact that the perpetrators are known to the victim is just one of the reasons why women hardly complain about sexual violence.

A more potent reason, police say, is that when a woman does come forward to file a case, she’s the one who bears the burden of shame.

Ajeetha says that the minute a woman starts making an issue of sexual harassment, she is shamed.

“There are all these people who brand her otherwise, with comments like - she was wearing revealing clothes, why did she come out that time, at that point of the day, etc,” Ajeetha says. All these comments only increase the number of hurdles a survivor has to jump over to get justice.

The third reason women don’t go to the police, experts say, is the fear that their name will be publicised - either in the media or in the community.

Swati Lakra, Additional Commissioner of Police (Crimes) & SIT, Hyderabad, says, “The fear of being exposed is one of the main reasons for women not coming forward.”

And the fear is not unfounded. Survivors are routinely named, despite laws banning the same. Take the recent case of the abduction and sexual assault of a woman actor in Kerala. While there was confusion in the immediate aftermath of the incident as to what had happened and many media houses used her name owing to that confusion, several publications continue to name her even after it was clear that she survived a sexual crime.

The next reason why women don’t come forward, cops say, is because in many instances, they’re not aware of the laws available to them.

In the aftermath of any high profile or highly publicised instance of sexual crime, the first thing that many people say — almost as a knee-jerk reaction — is that India’s laws are problematic and are not equipped to tackle gender-based violence.

While it is true that some specific instances like marital rape do not have laws, the fact is that India does have several laws against sexual crimes, but not enough users.

Ajeetha says that women are also not aware that there are resources available to help them fight a case without spending all their money.

“There is not much awareness about it. You have something called the District Legal Authority, KELSA (for those in Kerala), free legal aid for all women, but people don’t have an awareness about it,” she says.

The legal hassles and the time spent on cases themselves is a deterrent to women filing cases.

Our courts each have huge backlogs and there is a shortage of competent judges. The litigation process is long drawn out, putting many women through the wringer. As women’s rights activist Brinda Adige says, “Going to hearing after hearing, it wears them down - emotionally, psychologically, socially and economically.”

Another reason why women don’t approach the police, top cops themselves accept, is because the police is seen as being unapproachable. 

Some people, though, are trying to change that image. For instance, the SHE Teams, introduced in Telangana to deal with cases filed by women and ensure their safety and security.

“It is not that they don’t want to come to us, as such,” says Swati Lakra, who heads the SHE Teams. “They just don’t want to register a case. They want that the problem to be sorted out without an official case being registered,” she adds.

But that’s not the right approach, the top cop says. “Unless and until a proper case is registered against the perpetrator, he will go scot-free,” she says.

Family support to the individual filing cases also matters, says Swati.

“There are times when the girl wants (to file a complaint) but the family doesn't want to. The family feels that she should not go ahead with the case, that her name will be spoiled,” she says.

There is also no incentive for women to report cases, experts say.

“They see those around them who have reported abuse, and see that all they face is pressure to take back the cases. Swift action is necessary by court for more women to come forward,” Brinda Adige says.

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