December 08, 2019

Tackling Crimes against Women

THE gang rape and murder of a 27-year old woman, a veterinary doctor, on the outskirts of Hyderabad has once again starkly highlighted the violence women are facing in their everyday lives.  The bestiality and cruelty of the crime has evoked outrage and protests all over the country.

That this is not an isolated event becomes clear when we see similar horrific crimes committed in the days preceding and after the Hyderabad incident. 

In Ranchi, a young college student sitting with a friend was abducted and gang raped; in Tonk, Rajasthan, a six-year old girl returning from school was kidnapped and sexually assaulted and strangled with the belt on her uniform. A day after the Hyderabad atrocity, in Coimbatore, a girl student of Class-XI was abducted and gang raped. Such attacks on women and young girls have become rampant throughout the country. 

The Hyderabad crime was reminiscent of the chilling Nirbhaya incident of December 2012.  Seven years later, there seems to be no respite from the dreadful record of safety for women. 

In the anger and indignation roused by the Hyderabad crime, demands have been raised in parliament and outside for more stringent punishment to be given to rapists, including public hangings and castration. While the outrage and public revulsion are natural and justified, we must be clear as to what steps are needed to prevent such crimes against women occurring and to ensure the safety of women and children. 

Defence minister Rajnath Singh in the Lok Sabha and the chairman of the Rajya Sabha, have expressed their willingness to consider all proposals to make the laws on crimes against women more stringent. But is this the remedy to the serious problem confronting our society? After the Nirbhaya case, capital punishment was prescribed for rape and murder.  The Modi government has also introduced the death penalty for those convicted for rape of children under 12.  The problem lies not in the stringency of the law, but in the capability of the justice system to investigate, bring to trial and expedite the verdict. According to the National Crimes Research Bureau Report 2017, there is a huge backlog of cases with respect to rape cases, including child rape.  There were as many as 1.17 lakh cases from previous years pending trial.  Of the 18,099 cases where trial was completed, in 2017, only in 5,822 cases, there were convictions, ie, in 32.2 per cent cases. 

It is only the certainty of swift punishment that acts as a deterrent to crime and not putting more stringent punishment on to the statute books. 

The rape culture and impunity of crimes against women stems from the patriarchal and misogynist social values that prevail in Indian society. The subordination of women under patriarchy is compounded by the market and consumerist values which portray women as sex objects in our mass media and entertainment industry.  The refusal to acknowledge women as equal and their autonomy is deeply rooted in our social, religious and family mores. 

Crimes against women are rising worldwide, particularly in countries like Brazil and South Africa – which are similar to India.  All three are major developing countries where patriarchy and male domination is extreme combined with racial and caste hierarchies. These are highly unequal societies economically due to predatory capitalism. In South Africa, in the year 2018, there were 3,000 women murdered, many of them raped and brutalised before being killed.  This year in September, the rape and murder of a 19-year old university student in Cape Town led to protests all over the country. President Ramaphosa had to admit that there was a national crisis of crimes against women. 

In Brazil, sexual crimes have become so rampant that a study by the Brazilian Forum for Public Safety showed that four girls under 13 years are raped every hour. Like India and South Africa, Brazil is a highly unequal society. Patriarchy and male chauvinism is found in an extreme form.  The rightwing government of Bolsonaro has a regressive approach to women’s rights, just as the Hindutva attitude to women is patriarchal and hypocritical.  So the social and economic factors which exacerbate attacks on women should be taken into account. 

There has to be a determined effort in the educational institutions to educate young men and boys to view girls and women as equals and to respect their autonomy and ensure gender equality in the social and cultural spheres. Only then can there be a change in the regressive values which nurture violence against women.

The failure of the central and various state governments to implement many of the recommendations of the Justice Verma Committee set-up after the Nirbhaya case, is also responsible for the lack of safety for women in public places. The committee had suggested steps such as ensuring safe public transport, street lighting, mapping unsafe areas and provision of  increased police patrolling in such areas, among other steps. 

Ministers in various governments and elected representatives have repeatedly made public statements demeaning women, or, trivialising crimes against women.  Faced with the ferocious attacks on women at various levels, conservative forces are advocating pushing women back into their homes and putting restrictions on their access to public places. In these circles, the rape victim is held culpable for the way she dresses, or, her way of life.

The struggle against sexual violence against women has, thus, to be conducted in a multidimensional way. It involves a struggle against patriarchy and misogyny, the objectification of women and the sustained struggle to expand women’s rights and activity in the public sphere. The immediate task has to be to ensure speedy trial and convictions in all cases of crimes against women and compelling the government to implement measures for the safety of women in public spaces. 

(December 4, 2019)