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In a world of violence

By Suchitra Behal

It could easily be one of the most misused words in modern parlance. In fact lexicologists at a recent conference suggested that, due to the increasing misuse of certain words, society was becoming apathetic to the context in which they were being used. One such word was rape.

In the Indian context nothing could be truer. As a society, we dismiss rape as a mere statistic, only fit to be reported in the newspapers. We are so dehumanised that recently when a disabled child was raped in a Mumbai suburban train, passengers chose to avert their eyes.

In New Delhi, chilling incidents of assaults on girls within the university campuses have finally led to a public outcry and a media campaign that now refuses to let the issue die down. Perhaps the most frightening was the rape of a young medical student on November 15 in daylight a few metres away from the Police Commissioner's office. The spirited response of the students has turned the spotlight on a host of issues connected with rape.

Women, as the statistics make clear, are routinely subject to eve teasing, sexual assault, dowry deaths and sexual harassment at work places. But it is rape that is the most traumatising. National Crime Records Bureau figures show that, despite a certain amount of liberalisation in attitude, dress codes or societal trends, crimes against women have been rising, especially in the urban areas.

Consider the facts. Every 26 minutes a woman is molested, every 42 minutes a sexual harassment takes place and every half hour a rape takes place. But what is frightening is that majority of the cases are never reported for fear of reprisal, shame and guilt. Worse, the conviction rate is so low that most offenders know that they can get away with it.

Ranjana Nirula, working with the CITU, said that rape continued to occur because, "A large number of people know that they will go scot-free". The entire judicial procedure is so gender insensitive that a woman, "goes through rape not once but many times over". Nirula said that the whole process from registering an FIR to the courtroom was so insensitive that it was scary. "The police will ask the victim to repeat what happened to her. In court, she is examined in the presence of the accused. Even in the recent case of the Maulana Azad Medical College student, everybody is asking who the girl is?"

Unfortunately, despite the protests that women's organisations have made over the years, successive governments seem to have turned a deaf ear to their pleas. The National Commission of Women in 1993 came up with many suggestions, which asked for a more specific definition of sexual assault. It also asked for a more sensitive approach in handling such cases, but nothing seems to have come out of it.

The response of university authorities has been slow and ponderous. Take for instance the time when five persons in a car kidnapped a student from the north campus in Delhi University. When the media went to town with the issue of security, the authorities then reacting, asked for more police patrolling within the campus. A Gender Sensitive Cell against Sexual Harassment was quickly set up — and promptly forgotten.

Students and resident doctors of Maulana Azad College say that this incident was waiting to happen. Said one doctor, "The college gates are open to the public all through. There is no check on who is walking in or out. How then can they maintain any security?" A few days after the incident, two men were caught trying to molest two nurses who had stepped out of the college's Out-Patient Department.

Students from colleges in Delhi University complain that the authorities are not willing to consider their demands for better security. On their part, the authorities feel that they have taken certain measures and steps, which will soon show results.

But just as capital punishment may not be the best answer to prevent rape, no amount of security can help change a mind set. According to CITU's Nirula, "It's all about power and control. I think a lot of men are insensitive to women." She also felt that the issue of capital punishment was very complex and more likely to be a "red herring".

Figures reported in the Parliament show that from January to July, 229 rapes occurred in Delhi alone. Not even one rapist has been convicted. More sensitive judges have counselled their clients through many an ordeal. Despite the recent statement by the police commissioner, that women must dress less provocatively, more than one-fourth of the cases reported involved minor children. According to lawyer Kirti Singh, "It is important to answer this whole question of provocation. Most of the girls raped are below 16, so tell me what is so provocative about them?"

Criticising the antiquated procedures in handling rape cases, Singh said there was a total lack of sensitivity within the police force as well as the judiciary. "The procedures are long drawn and inhuman and also we have not updated our laws. Women's issues are a low priority area and once it is out of the limelight it is conveniently forgotten," said she.

As a lawyer, Singh wants a legal process that will recognise the trauma of a rape victim, tougher punishment and quicker procedures to catch the offender and, most of all, a gender sensitive police force and judiciary. "My first instinct is to counsel the victim and her family. We don't have any systems in place to take care of the psychological trauma that these people go through. Rehabilitation is a must," she said.

Part of the blame of the recent rape cases within the campus had to be taken by the university authorities, she felt, since they had been negligent and lax in maintaining tighter control.

However according to Rajya Sabha MP and actor Shabana Azmi, "We have to begin by changing the mindset of the people. If we want to make our society safe for women then our solution has to be multi pronged." In a recent article on the issue, Azmi said that one could put any number of cops inside the campus; police people regularly and yet not achieve this.

She has a point. While the police today run more help lines than ever for women victims, while there are more social organisations offering help, violence against women, whether in rural or urban India, continues to grow. There is no one answer to any of this and neither are there any simplistic solutions that will make for a safer society. Instead it is a long haul, which needs more than mere lip service to achieve this goal.