HOLISTIC APPROACH TO FIGHT CRIMES AGAINST WOMEN

New Delhi May 11   The root cause of violence against women in the country is ignorance of, or blatant disregard for, issues faced by them. Sensitising, educating and informing the public can improve the situation

In my previous column, I discussed the issues with the Ordinance, stipulating death penalty in cases of rape of minors under 12 years of age, that has recently been proposed by the BJP Government and promulgated by President Ram Nath Kovind. I commented on how the measures proposed under the Ordinance essentially take the easy way out and may be a case of the cure being more harmful than the disease. In this week’s column, I will propose certain steps that can help tackle the important issue of reducing crimes against women.

The current scenario: While the entire focus of the Prime Minister and the Government is on Karnataka and on campaigning, the recent horrific rape in Jharkhand has once again brought to light the crucial issue of women safety. Currently, India has a variety of laws that are aimed at protecting the rights of women, including strict penalties for crimes against women under the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Although against a horrific and despicable backdrop of violent rapes and cases of sexual assault, the past few years have especially seen a spate of amendments to the criminal laws of our country to tackle this problem. Statistics, however, do not hint that these measures have contributed towards any meaningful improvement in the situation.

The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) statistics indicate how crimes against women increased over 8.7 per cent between 2014 and 2016. Another troubling trend is the increase in instances of domestic abuse. A primary reason for the steadied increase in the number of crimes against women is the lack of focus on gender sensitisation. Therefore, the foundation of any approach, that is aimed at tackling these violent crimes, must first focus on the issues faced by women. Secondly, it must be grounded in the belief that women must be treated as absolute equals in society.

Gender sensitisation: The term ‘gender’ refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities and attributes that a society considers appropriate for men and women. Gender sensitisation is a practice of making people aware of such prejudices and roles that the society has attributed to both males and females and the primary purpose of gender sensitisation is to make people aware of such prejudices and differences between males and females. As stated above, while theoretically, there are a number of laws and programmes that are aimed at improving the status of women and reducing instances of crime against them, numbers on the ground show that such measures have unfortunately not shown tangible results.

A large reason for this chasm between theory and practice is the lack of gender sensitisation programmes and conversations around gender in our country from the stage of drafting of legislations to the point of implementation of policies. Gender sensitisation programmes, however, should not be limited to the Government or the state but must be encouraged across age groups, ie, from children to adults and across forums and institutions (right from schools to offices).

To better understand how gender sensitisation can be useful specifically in the context of reducing instances of crime against women, one can look what the numbers tell us. For example, in order to ensure safety of women, it is important that women feel comfortable enough to report instances of violence against them. However, Indian police estimate that only four out of 10 rapes are reported. One of the reasons behind this abysmally low reportage is that currently, women are ashamed of being victims of such brutal crimes because they fear being ostracised and criticised by their family, their community and society as a whole.

Instead, men and women must be aware of how in cases of rape or other forms of violence against women, there is no blame that can be attached to the victim. It is also imperative that women feel safe to approach the State or their family/communities for guidance and support and not be ridiculed. Another example where gender sensitisation is required is at the time of drafting legislations to protect women. I have discussed this in greater detail in my previous column where the Ordinance could do more harm than good. Therefore, Governments need to apprise themselves of ground realities and avoid quick fire measures.

Words to action: There is no denying that in most cases of rape or assault on women, there is a set of standard lines expressing grief and anguish that are surely getting worn out. Unfortunately, lack of ambition of moving from ephemeral words to tangible action is not only limited to comments to the media and the public but extends to the Government and the executive as well.

For example, with respect to police reforms, various committees and commissions have noted that police officers are overburdened and ill-equipped to conduct investigations in a professional manner. One of the recommendations that have been suggested is training the police officers on modern investigative techniques. Another important change that must be introduced is the establishment of specialised investigative units within the police which will solely deal with investigation of crimes as opposed to law and order issues.

These changes will indubitably help the police achieve a higher conviction rate with respect to crimes against women. This is pertinent to note in light of the Ordinance, which provides for a shorter period for investigation but completely ignores the manner in which investigations are conducted. This is akin to putting the cart before the horse because it will almost certainly result in fewer convictions due to a weak case by the prosecution against the accused.

Another example is that of ‘One Stop Centres’ (OSC). This was an initiative that was announced by the present Government in 2015 to ensure that women, who are victims of rape and other forms of violence, can access the police and medical help at one place.  While this is a noble cause, as per reports and accounts available online, hospitals that are required to maintain such OSCs are either unaware of the requirement to maintain or have not set up the relevant infrastructure in accordance with the guidelines that have been set in place. RTI inquiries that have been made in relation to this initiative too do not indicate any real focus on this initiative since its announcement.

This seems to be a classic move of the current administration where the focus is on announcing bombastic changes but there is little or no follow-up on such initiatives. It is hardly surprising then that the abysmally poor numbers on the ground reflect the costs of these insincere efforts.

Ultimately, the root of the problem of violence against women in our country is our ignorance or blatant disregard for the issues that are faced by them. Therefore, in order to make strides towards reducing instances of violence, the need of the hour is to focus our efforts on sensitising, educating and informing the public in order to start chomping away at the root of this poisonous tree. At the same time, however, we must buttress these efforts by implementing measures and guidelines that are already in place rather than drafting new guidelines or legislations. There is no doubt that the measures discussed above will take time to bear fruit but if there is any problem that deserves our time, patience and energy, it is this one.