Violence against women

Is Anyone Listening?

Will gender equality and justice remain a hollow claim or will there be a sincere effort to make them real? As the Delhi gang rape triggered a country-wide emotional upsurge the government was forced to take some initiatives. Two commissions—Justice Verma Commission and Justice Mehra Commission—are now working on the issue with a wide range of references including recommendations on amending the existing laws.

Whatever may be the outcome of these initiatives by the Government, what is pertinent in this regard is to raise some uncomfortable questions too. The enactment of proper legal instruments in the form of fast track courts and other necessary requirements are being called for but the much needed Police reform remains on the back burner. And the debate continues whether capital punishment is the exemplary form of punishment and whether it should be applied in the "rarest of the rare" case/s of rape or not? 140 countries around the world have abolished capital punishment from their statute book but India retains it and also justifies it. The experiences of capital punishments have not led to deterrence in crimes, whether hanging of Auto Shankar and Dhananjoy Chatterjee on charges of rape and murder, or for that matter any other such case, the capital punishment has failed to deter crimes being committed at regular intervals. So the question remains: Is capital punishment the only form of exemplary punishment? Is life imprisonment not a better alternative? Are there any other alternative available or not?

Is it not a fact that laws do not operate in isolation? As a matter of fact they operate in a socio-cultural and religious milieu which to a large extent is discriminatory and has allowed the persistence of obscurantist and regressive practices which in turn in many ways have led to growing crimes against women in the country. The combination of a weak criminal justice administration system and the prevalence of wicked cultural norms in society at large gets reflected in large number of crimes being committed against women across the country on a regular basis. The impunity that the perpetrators and even the duty-bearers enjoy along with the non-accountability of the political establishment have nullified the chances of getting justice and human rights to a large extent.

In many cases the alleged perpetrators are not arrested, and if arrested may be released on bail. The long time taken to arrest an alleged perpetrator/s affects the investigation and charge-sheeting. In several instances witness/witnesses may turn hostile and that affects the chances of accused being convicted. There could many more practical problems due to which large number of cases ends up in acquittal and large pendency of cases for trials. These kinds of situations reinforce the much needed reforms in the Criminal Justice Administration in the country.

The brutality with which rape and other kinds of violence happens against women not only highlights the failure of the criminal justice administration in the country, but also testifies to the fact about moral/ethical and cultural decay and insensitivity on gender issues in the society at large.

Though several changes have been made over the years, the Police set up in the country is guided mainly by the Police Act of 1861. The Policing and maintenance of Public Order is to be carried out by the Police. The "law and order" is listed under State list and that is why it is the responsibility of each respective State Government to bring reforms keeping under consideration the changing scenario and the need for better policing. However, there have several attempts by the Central Government through constituting Commissions and Committees to bring forth the much needed Police reforms. The Gore Committee on Police Training (1971-1973); The National Police Commission set up in 1977; Ribeiro Committee on Police Reforms (1980); Padmanabhaiah Committee on Police Reforms (2000); Group of Ministers on National Security (2000-01); Malimath Committee on Reforms of Criminal Justice System (2001-03); Soli Sorabjee Police Act Drafting Committee (2005-06) and even the Administrative Reforms Commission headed by Veerappa Moily (2005-07) had a report on Public Order with several recommendations on Police reforms.

A writ petition filed in 1996 in the Supreme Court and heard over a period of 10 years, resulted in a landmark "Seven Directives" for immediate compliance so as be operative till such time a new model Police Act is prepared by the Central Government and/or the State Governments pass the requisite legislations. The landmark judgement of the Supreme Court delivered on September 22, 2006 still remains not complied with fully by several State Governments/Union Territories. The matter remains sub-judice.

The moot question remains unanswered : "When will the wretched of the earth be treated equal in dignity and rights along with others"?

Years after years and the not so satisfactory role of the police set up in containing communal, caste and other kinds of disturbances along with its normal functioning, there does not seem to be any urgency on part of the Central Government as well as the respective State Governments and Union Territories. What is preventing the Central Government in promulgating a new model Police Act? It is quite baffling! The protector turning perpetrator/s of serious crimes, their complicity in several illegal activities, shielding of culprits, politicisation on caste and communal lines and several other unsavoury experiences so far has put a question mark on their integrity and accountability. And on top of all these instances of ineffectiveness and gross failure of integrity, there have been clamour for more powers to the Police to check the growing menace of criminal and terrorist activities. The signs of India becoming a Police State is imminent if the hawkish and rabid communal/casteist elements in the Government and administration are allowed a free hand. The fact, however, remains that if India is to remain a democratic country with a built-in system of check and balance and accountability, the Police and the Internal Security set up in the country must adopt human rights standards and laws. Until and unless the Police reforms takes place following human rights based approach, the crisis of governability will remain a sad feature of Indian State.

In a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic society it becomes all the more important to look at issues taking into consideration the role different social, religious and ethnic groups play in society, economy and polity. Intersectionality therefore becomes an important tool to understand the problems faced by women belonging to different social, ethnic and religious groups. The well entrenched discriminatory practices in society prevents road blocks at every possible stage for women belonging to different social, ethnic and religious groups from accessing justice and human rights. In the context of a largely diverse country like India, women belonging to Dalits, Adivasis, religious and other ethnic groups face multiple set of discrimination and human rights violations in particular apart from being women that they have to face in general. In several instances in the past and even in present times, be it during communal violence, caste violence, or militancy affected states and regions, the women belonging to these groups have always remained at the receiving end as far as securing justice on account of gross human rights violations by the State and even Non-State actors are concerned. It is only through recognising the intersectionality that runs through gender discrimination and violence that their problems could be addressed.

What people have been witnessing in the country is the complete lack of commitment on part of the Government and its agencies at several levels about the need for addressing the gender violence issues in an unbiased and judicious ways. The victims and survivors of Gujarat massacre are still being denied justice. The women in the zones of internal conflict (North Eastern States and Jammu & Kashmir) face violent situations in their day to day life and there have not been any significant progress as far as upholding their human rights are concerned.

Soni Sori is still languishing in jail. Her plea for a probe against the brutal torture and degrading treatment by the Police still remains unheeded. In Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, Adivasi women remain caught in cross-fires between security forces and the rebel Maoists and end up being the worst sufferers of violence.

Dalit women continue facing harassment, violence and their human rights violated across the country. Even if one takes last two decades into account, it remains a distressing scenario in the country. From Bhanwari Devi in Rajasthan, Bathani Tola and Lakshmanpur Bathe in Bihar to Khairlanji in Maharashtra and several places in Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and in other States as well, large number of rape and other kinds of violence against Dalit women are being reported and many still remain unreported. The moot question remains unanswered: "When will the wretched of the earth be treated equal in dignity and rights along with others"?

Considering the enormity of gender based violence in the country the need for an all inclusive and a comprehensive national action plan on violence against women should be accorded top priority now by the Central as well as State Governments and Union Territories. The significance of legal framework, due diligence, cracking impunity and fixing accountability of State as well as non-State actors must be recognised and adhered to while trying to address the issues related to violence against women.

National Action Plan on violence against women as advocated by International Organisations like UN Women and other Human Rights Mechanisms within the UN, stress on three aspects to start with :
o    Acknowledge that violence against women is a violation of human rights;
o    Define violence against women according to international norms; and
o    Respond explicitly to State obligations under international human rights treaties.

Explicitly acknowledging and defining violence against women according to human rights standards in plans provides a strong and coherent framework to Government and civil society stakeholders for cooperative effort. It does not preclude other approaches to preventing and eliminating violence, such as education, health, development and criminal justice efforts, but on the contrary encourages an indivisible, holistic and multi-sectoral response.

Linking National Action Plans to human rights treaties recognizes that claims to secure rights, including the right of women to live free from violence, do not represent 'new demands' but are rightfully claimed as part of the duty of States under international law. National Action Plans provide an opportunity for States not only to develop an effective, comprehensive and nationally-relevant response to treaty obligations and international standards related to violence against women, but also to demonstrate that response, and so aid the reporting process to international bodies. The plan becomes an articulation of Governments' accountability to women themselves, to all their citizens and to the international community.

Ending violence against women requires change at every level - from State systems and laws through to organizations such as schools, workplaces and support services, local and cultural communities, and down to individual relationships and behaviours. The challenge for the development of National Action Plans is how to translate this imperative into 'a blueprint for action' - to identify, coordinate and prioritize the most effective forms of action in the short, mid and long-term. Because National Action Plans are multi-sectoral and often cross-jurisdictional, their development is not just about drafting actions, but setting up the structures and engaging the stakeholders necessary for its effective implementation. Engagement, advocacy and cooperation, between government departments, between government and non-government organizations, and between people and communities are essential to coordinate and sustain the document's actions.

Structures for coordination, information sharing and networking, and for the ongoing communication of, and advocacy for, the plan's messages, are just as important as the plan itself. The development phase for National Action Plans is a critical period during which these structures should be set up or strengthened to ensure the formulation and later implementation of a coherent, comprehensive and sustained programme of activity.

The above mentioned framework on national action plan on violence against women as developed by the UN Women office may help in preparing and executing a comprehensive action plan as per the local requirements. UN Women Office in the country should also share its expertise with the concerned Governments, Ministries and Departments in this regards.

It is high time a top priority is accorded by the Government and also by the society at large in tackling the ever growing violence against women in the country. The gruesome and not so gruesome incidents of violence against women happening all across the country on a regular basis everyday are black spots on the face and destiny of this country. Every effort must be made to change this or else the goal of an egalitarian society would remain unattainable. Is anyone listening?

Vol. 45, No. 29, January 27- Feb 2, 2013

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