By Swapna Majumdar
Wednesday, April 16, 2014
India's Supreme Court chief justice has promised to direct courts to translate legal advice booklets for rape survivors into local vernacular languages. Amid declining rates of conviction and a dismissive atmosphere, survivors are turning away from the system.
Credit: Ramesh Lalwani on Flickr, under Creative Commons
NEW DELHI (WOMENSENEWS)--It just happened again. Another prominent public figure, the former head of government of India's most populous state, downplayed the problem of rape.
At an April 10 election rally, Mulayam Singh Yadav, a former three-time chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, described rape as a "mistake" committed by boys and that it didn't warrant the death penalty in comments publicized by television and press reports.
Such comments feed an atmosphere that safety activists say helps explain the erosion of rape prosecutions, which fell to about 24 percent of all rapes cases registered in 2012 from about 27 percent in 2010, according to the National Crime Records Bureau.
"The scary part is that such remarks by politicians aren't isolated," says Kavita Krishnan, secretary of All India Progressive Women's Association, a group affiliated with the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation. "High-ranking policemen also trivialize rape unless the victims are dead or badly injured. While one former Mumbai police commissioner said rapes happen because of kissing in public, another said 90 percent of rape complaints were false because they were not being hospitalized. The mindset that equates women's consensual relations with rape and condones rape is widespread."
However, one portion of the government is taking action. To combat declining rape prosecutions, Supreme Court Chief Justice P. Sathasivam on April 7 presided over the release of legal self-help booklets for rape survivors and promised to ask all the high courts and subordinate courts in the country to translate them into as many local languages as possible.
That is a small beginning in a nation where many leaders dismiss rape.
Krishnan says the bias and apathy of police and judiciary saps a woman's courage. "Poor and biased quality of investigation and prosecution exacerbates the problem, often forcing the women to give up."
This could change if all political parties agree to reform the criminal justice system, say a consortium of activists who have drawn up a six-point "Womanifesto," a plan on gender equality that they presented to political parties a few months ago.
If implemented, the Womanifesto will be a huge boost for women and encourage them to continue their fight for justice," says Krishnan, who helped produce it.
"The Womanifesto lays out the roadmap on how to support survivors by instituting one-stop, 24-hour crisis centers in each police district providing comprehensive services to women who are victims of violent crimes," says Karuna Nundy, a co-founder of Womanifesto and a Supreme Court lawyer.
Meanwhile, the booklets, soon to be distributed by the Supreme Court, are designed to help survivors seeking legal recourse cope with a rugged itinerary of visits to hospitals, police stations and courtrooms.
The investigation process is so grueling that many survivors feel as though they are being re-victimized and in response to that, stop pursuing their charges, says Indira Jaising, executive director of the Delhi-based Lawyers Collective, which produced the booklets.
The Womanifesto seeks to relieve this ordeal by saying judges should not consider factors such as a victim's sexual history, relationship with the accused and degree of physical resistance when setting sentences.
More fast-track courts are required in India to address crimes of violence against women to ensure swift and certain justice, say authors of the Womanifesto. Also necessary, they say, is penalizing those in the criminal justice system who display discriminatory behavior.
One example of that arose in September 2013 when a Madras High Court judge was widely quoted as saying women should avoid sexual assaults by not being at the wrong places at the wrong times.
Another instance occurred three months later, in December, when a trial judge presiding over a fast-track court had to be reprimanded for saying that young women were morally bound to avoid pre-marital sex, and if they did not, it would be at their peril and they could not complain of rape later.
"For any judicial system to work women need to lose fear of the law and look upon the judiciary as a friendly place," says Jaising, whose collective provides legal assistance to the underprivileged, especially women and marginalized communities.
In a letter to India's Supreme Court Chief Justice P. Sathasivam, Jaising expressed her dismay at the "chauvinistic remarks' by the Madras High Court judge. "No amount of fast-track courts and special courts will deliver justice to women if those who hold the high office of a judge of the High Court hold and express such male chauvinistic views," she wrote, while seeking an end to the "dangerous trend."
Jaising heads a women's rights initiative at the Lawyers Collective that recently examined the attrition rates for rape cases and identified survivors' distrust of the legal system as a contributing factor.
Prosecutions for other crimes against women have also been falling, the 2012 national crime statistics show. The steepest decline was for "Eve teasing" or sex harassment, which dropped to about 37 percent of all cases registered in 2012 from almost 53 percent in 2010. Convictions for molestation also fell by 5 percent to 24 percent from nearly 30 percent in the same two-year period.
Jaising says social outrage at the fatal gang rape of a medical student here in the capital city over a year ago will not tolerate these trends.
"Things have not been the same after the Dec. 16, 2012, fatal gang rape in Delhi," says Jaising, who is also India's first female additional solicitor general of the Supreme Court. "In addition to laws, an ecosystem around them is needed to help survivors come forward to use these laws. Awareness will help survivors report the offence and pursue the case to its conclusion."
More than half the women in India feel unsafe, according to a survey conducted by a market research group and Avaaz, an online campaigning community. Released on April 4, the survey also found 99 percent of Indian voters were concerned about the level of violence faced by women in the country and 87 percent were concerned about discrimination against women in India.
The Lawyers Collective's two booklets for rape survivors are called "Engaging with the Criminal Justice System" and "Locating the Survivor in the Indian Justice System: Decoding the Law." They are written for lawyers, women, survivors and those assisting survivors to help them navigate the criminal justice system.
One booklet spells out the steps that will be taken in an investigation, the role of the prosecutor and trial process. The other provides information on a rape survivor's rights, which include the option of requesting a female police officer when registering a complaint.
There is also a section of frequently asked questions. One asks what a survivor can do if a police officer refuses to file a case. The answer: the officer can be punished by imprisonment of between six months and two years and a survivor should immediately bring the matter to a superior police officer or file a private complaint before a magistrate.
Swapna Majumdar is a journalist based in New Delhi, India, and writes on development and gender.
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