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By R. D. SHARMA, The Hindu, Chennai

There has been a phenomenal rise in crime against women. As per the National Crime Records Bureau's report, dowry deaths have gone up from 5,513 in 1996 to 6,917 in 1998, cases of rape from 14,846 to 15,031, torture from 35,246 to 41,318, molestation from 28,939 to 31046, sexual harassment from 5,671 to 8,123. In addition, pernicious practices like child marriage, sati, prostitution and sex-determination are widespread both in rural and urban areas. All these figures, however, represent only the proverbial tip of the iceberg, as the majority of cases remain unreported for a host of reasons.

Not that there have been no efforts in the past to contain the rising violence against women. The Dowry Prohibition Act 1961 has been amended twice to make its provisions more stringent and punitive. The Indian Penal Code, the Criminal Procedure Code and the Indian Evidence Act have also been changed simultaneously to deal effectively with not only dowry deaths but also the cases of cruelty to married women. Similarly, suitable modifications in the law against rape have been incorporated to remove some of its drawbacks. But all these changes have not reduced the frequency of crime at all.

According to the National Commission for Women's report (based on data given by the Ministry of Women and Child Development) every 26 minutes a woman is molested. Every 54 minutes a rape takes place. Every 48 minutes an eve-teasing incident occurs. Every 4 minutes a woman is kidnapped. And every 10 minutes another is burnt to death over dowry. One act of cruelty every 33 minutes and one criminal offence every 7 minutes against women take place in our country. But these statistics do not include the cases of sexual abuse by the members of family and known persons amounting to 87.4 per cent, according to the findings of an extensive survey conducted by a Delhi based women's group. Victims rarely report such crime to the police for fear of shame, humiliation, guilt and self-blame.

Wide gap

The objectives of preventive laws may not be faulted, but what is of crucial importance is their enforcement. A wide gap exists between laws with high social and economic purposes and their implementation on account of police inefficiency and widespread corruption all around. In this climate, the cutting edge of laws, both as an instrument of crime prevention and of social change, is bound to get blunted. The position further gets aggravated when the culprits are seen by the populace flouting, perverting or getting round the letter and spirit of the law. So long as these laws are not accompanied by the empowerment of women at all levels and a sense of accountability in the enforcing agency, they will serve little purpose.

In any case, legal remedies alone cannot cope with a regressive socio-economic set-up in the absence of radical, structural and economic reforms which can be implemented only by mass mobilisation and participation. But with the kind of bureaucracy, police and political set-up that we have, the mere passing of laws will not serve any purpose. More important than legislative reforms is the strict enforcement of rights already available to women in relation to property matters. In fact, women's plight is compounded by their reluctance to seek legal remedies even if they are aware of them. The voluntary surrender of their rights in the matter of inheritance is the single biggest reason why women suffer the ignominy of dowry that continues to make marriage an ordeal or a death-trap for many of them.

Judicial bias against women is also evident. According to a survey, conducted by Sakshi, an NGO, as many as 64 per cent judges are of the view that women are themselves partly responsible for the violence they face. In criminal cases like rape, needless emphasis is often placed on the victim's character and conduct and her past scrutinised, whereas the previous history of the accused is ignored by judges. The part of the definition of rape which says, "the act of sex must be against her will and without her consent", is more often than not disbelieved by courts because of a misconceived notion that rape cannot be committed without the victim's consent.

Long delays

Nor is this all. Long delays in law courts are also responsible for a spurt in crimes. It has been seen that often it takes years for the cases to reach the final stages of disposal. At present over staggering 1.34 crore criminal cases are awaiting trial in lower courts across the country. During the course of pendency, most of the witnesses are either lured or scared away or evidence relevant to the case destroyed by offenders. As a result the cases fall flat. The Law Commission has recommended simplification of penal provisions, establishment of more courts and improvement in the working of enforcement agencies but the government is yet to work on its recommendations to shorten the trial in criminal cases.

To prevent this happening, cases like dowry deaths and rapes being committed with alarming frequency must be summarily tried by special courts set up for the purpose. These courts will certainly ensure speedy justice to victims. In fact, it is not the severity of the punishment but its certainty that deters potential criminals the most. Similarly, family courts, if set up soon and manned by female judges, can take care of many problems of married women which, in turn, will lead to happier marital life. But is it not too much to expect from the patriarchal political class which is allergic to gender equality and stalling reservation of 33 per cent seats for women in Parliament and State legislatures?

Public response to crime is also one of indifference. This is evident from the recent bizarre and shameful incident in which two dalit women were repeatedly assaulted, stripped and paraded naked in full public view by a few Thakur landlords at their native village in Kanpur district of Uttar Pradesh. The fault of the women was that they allowed a mentally retarded Thakur girl of the same village to spend one night at their house. Her family members did not take it kindly and decided to teach them a lesson. Worst of all is the fact that with so many people present no one came to the victims' rescue despite their repeated cries for help. All this shows a lack of humanity to say nothing of social conscience and a level of police incompetence. It is the same attitude which allows young and innocent brides to be burnt to death over dowry every day.

In realistic sense, the problem of violence against women has its roots in a socio-economic order which is heavily biased against women. The ancient law books, in effect, equate woman with beasts and drums meaning that like the latter two, women also deserve to be beaten. A woman in revolt, a woman having an identity of her own, is a concept totally alien to Indian culture.

When the entire milieu is steeped overwhelmingly in the tradition of women's utter subjection to men, when the belief continues to persist that women are mere chattels to be procured and dispensed with in the service of the male, there can be little hope for a dramatic uplift in the state of women. Only a change in this fundamental perception to one of according women total equality in all things can bring about the radical transformation in society where crime will not be committed against them merely because they are women.

In the ultimate analysis, there can be no two opinions about the need for stringent laws, sensitive judiciary, effective law and enforcement machinery and vigilant women's groups to deal with such atrocious crimes against women. But what is needed more than anything else is a total revolution in the thinking of our society that always blames the woman for the crime of which she is the victim, not the perpetrator.


Copyright 2001 FT Asia Intelligence Wire
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Copyright 2001 The Hindu.


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