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India's Daughters Not Safe Despite Landmark Verdicts, Stringent Laws

Progressive verdicts by courts help the cause of gender justice. But a lot remains to be done. Despite laws like protection of women from domestic violence act, 2005, Indian women continue to suffer violence in a patriarchal society, claim activists and experts

Fight for justice: Artwork by Anupriya

In June this year, the Supreme Court of the United States, in a landmark judgment, ove­rturned the constitutional right of Ame­rican women to abortion. This right was established 50 years ago, and the recent judg­ment sparked criticism from feminists and gender rights activists, who claimed that it undermined reproductive rights and women’s physical autonomy.

A month later, the Supreme Court (SC) ruled that even unmarried women had the right to safe abortion, and denying it violated their perso­nal autonomy and freedom. The judgment was rou­n­dly praised for upholding gender justice. For seve­ral years now, the SC has been recogni­sed as a defender of gender rights.

In 2020, former President Ram Nath Kovind had praised the country’s judiciary for “pursuing the cherished goal of gender justice”. He had also described the SC as “proactive and progressive”.

“From issuing guidelines on preventing sexual harassment in the workplace two decades ago to providing directives for granting equal status to women in the Army this month, the Supreme Cou­rt of India has led progressive social transformation,” he had said.

Kovind was referring to the Vishaka Guidelines, promulgated by the Supreme Court in 1997 to gov­ern cases of sexual harassment at workplaces. This eventually evolved into the Sexual Harass­m­ent of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohi­bi­tion and Redressal) Act, 2013.

He was also praising the SC’s judgment in Feb­r­u­ary 2020, allowing women to serve a full tenure in the Army and be treated on a par with their male colleagues when it came to promotions, ranks, benefits, and pensions. Till then, the Army, which sta­r­ted inducting women officers in 1992, only allowed them short service commissions of five years.

The Indian courts have, over the past few years, pas­sed several landmark judgments to ensure justice, not only for women but also for other genders.

Small steps

These include a 2014 judgment recognising transgenders as a third gender, and the decriminalisation of Sec­­tion 377 of the Indian Penal Code that earl­ier criminalised consensual same-sex relationships in 2018. In the same month, the SC also decriminalised adultery, which had been a crime for 158 years. “Hus­b­and is not the master of wife. Women should be tre­ated with equality along with men,” former Chi­ef Jus­tice of India Dipak Misra had said. And in 2020, the SC ruled that a Hindu woman wou­ld be able to inherit her father’s property even if he did not leave behind a will, clearing any misconce­p­tion over succe­ssion rights.

But do landmark judgments succeed in making a more equal society? A look at the data on crimes against women reveals a different story. Crimes against wom­en, including rape and intimate-partner violence, seem to be on the rise all over the country. At times, some judgments—instead of making way for progressive measures—help in the continuation of a regress­ive, patriarchal society, claim activists.

Taking stock

The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), a New Delhi-based government agency that collects and ana­lyses data about crimes reported across the country, had in September 2021 claimed in its annual rep­ort that the number of cases of crime against women had declined in 2020.

Happier Times: The room in which a rape victim lived, in Dimapur, Nagaland
Happier Times The room in which a rape victim lived, in Dimapur, Nagaland Photo: Sandipan Chatterjee

In 2019, the number of such cases registered in police stations across the country was 4,05,326. It dec­lined to 3,71,503 cases in 2020—a fall of 8.3 per cent. The report attributed this to the pan-India Covid-19 lockdown.

The NCRB’s 2022 report, however, records a rev­ersal in this trend. In 2021, crimes against wom­en registered across the cou­ntry rose 15.3 per cent to 4,28,278. The report also showed that the crime rate per 1,00,000 women was 64.5 per cent in 2021.

Crimes against women are categorised under var­ious subheads such as rape, rape with murder, dowry, acid attacks, suicide abetment, kidnapping, forced marriage, human trafficking, and online haras­s­ment, among others.

The number of cases of assault on women with an intent to outrage their modesty accounted for 20.8 per cent of the total cases registered in 2021—as many as 90,675. The number of rapes regi­ste­red in 2021 was 31,677—an average of 86 per day. Of these, 3,033 were minor victims and survivors.

A significant alteration to the Evide­nce Act, 1872, allowing the presumption of non-con­sent for the victim or survivor, allows women with prior exper­ience of sex seek justice for rape.

The NCRB only records the number of cases reg­istered at police stations. It might not reflect the total number of crimes against women, many of which go unreported. Also, an increase in the number of cases possibly reflects more awareness among victims, survivors, and their allies abo­ut the legal process. Nevertheless, the number of crimes against women registered against women is alarmingly high.

After ‘Nirbhaya’

In December 2012, a brutal gang rape was repor­ted in New Delhi. A 23-year-old paramedical student, who would later get the ironic moniker of ‘Nirbhaya’ because Indian law does not allow the names of rape victims and survivors to be repor­ted, was assaulted in a moving bus on the capital’s streets. She succumbed to her wounds in a hospital several days later.

The news of the assault sparked countrywide protests, leading to significant changes in the laws governing rape and sexual assault. The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013, was passed, amending several provisions of the IPC and the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC). The definition of “rape” was expanded to include such offences as forced oral sex, which was not prosecutable earlier. The Act also made existing offences more stringent, and it was further amended in 2018.

A significant alteration was made to the Evide­nce Act, 1872, allowing the presumption of non-con­sent for the victim or survivor. This mea­ns the onus of disproving a sexual crime was on the accu­sed, not the complainant. It was done to ensure that women with previous sexual exper­ience or sex workers could also seek justice for rape.

'Provocative dress?'

And yet, victim shaming remains a major problem in cases of sexual assault and rape, claim legal experts. “There are no perfect victims in cases of sex­ual assault,” says Rebecca M. John, a senior SC law­yer. “But courts still keep looking for perfect­ion in a woman’s character while assessing their allegations.”

John has represented survivors in several rape cases over the decades. “She is promiscuous, she had affairs, she did not behave in a certain way, she did not cry enough during the incident, she does not seem traumatised—all these are regular exc­uses thrown at us by the defence to get an accused acquitted,” she tells Outlook.

In solidarity A woman farmer protesting in Ghazipur
In solidarity A woman farmer protesting in Ghazipur Photo: Tribhuvan Tiwari

True to its “proactive and progressive” rep­utat­ion, the SC does provide ground-breaking judgm­e­nts from time to time. For instance, in 2018, it set aside a Delhi high court verdict that had acquitted four men in a rape case in 1997. The SC observed that a woman had a “right to refuse to submit herself to sexual intercourse to anyone”, even if she was “habituated to sexual intercourse”.

But not all judgments are similar. In August this year, a sessions court in Kerala granted bail to writer, activist and accused in a sexual assault case, Civic Chandran because the complainant was allegedly wearing a “provocative dress”. The judgment had led to wide­spread outrage. The Kerala high court later stayed the Kozhikode dist­rict and sessions court’s order that granted anticipatory bail.

“Such incidents reflect not only the inherent patriarchy in the Indian judiciary but also problems with the 2013 Act itself,” says John. She added that the problem was in the way the courts viewed the law. “The senten­ces prescribed are very stringent,” says John. “The Act gives very little discretion to courts to deliver a lower sentence as might be appropriate in different cases. To get rid of this problem, courts often choose to dismiss the case altogether.”

The conviction rate in rape cases was at a low of 24.8 percent in 2021. Only 156 people had been convicted and 22,313 cases were under trial.

“In an ideal democracy, a law pas­sed with the intention of improving public life must be audited over a per­iod to assess its impact on the gro­und, and tweaked to improve its eff­icacy,” says John. “Perhaps it’s time for India to take a second look at its laws against gender violence.”

Rising desperation

In the summer of 2021, as the country was strugg­l­ing against the second wave of Covid-19, Sarita* (name changed), 41, a resident of Nesapakkam in Chennai, decided to end her life. Years of domestic abuse had made her desperate and in April 2021, she set fire to herself. Luckily, she survived.

“After my second child was born, my first husb­and left me in 2017,” she said. “We had been married for many years.” She got married again in 2019, but this time, her own family was opposed to the union. “I went to the police, but they did not help me,” says Sarita. “They sent me back to my relatives, asking me to behave appropriately.”

Despite laws like the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, Indian women continue to suffer violence in a patriarchal society.

She said she did not really want to kill herself. “But this was no life either.”

Sarita’s misfortune is a common experience for many Indian women. NCRB data shows the highest number of cases of crime against women in 2021 was registered under the “cruelty by husb­and or relatives” category—31.8 per cent (1,36,192 cases). The number of women committing suicide in India has also increased alarmingly. Of the 1,60,000 people who took their own lives in India in 2021, 45,026 were women—up from 44,498 in 2020. Among the women committing suicide in 2021, 51.5 per cent (23,178) were homemakers—up from 50.3 per cent (22,372) in 2020.

Despite laws such as the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005—popularly called the DV Act—Indian women continue to suffer violence in a patriarchal society, with strictly defined gender roles. Even the wording of the law had init­ially surprised gender activists.

Defining who is an accused in a case of domestic violence, the draft bill had said it was a person who committed violence “again and again”.

“What does ‘again and again’ mean?” asks Mariam Dhawale, gene­ral secretary, of All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), an independent left-oriented women’s association. “Even here, we see an attempt to justify some amount of violence.” The words were removed and the definition was clarified after object­i­ons from women’s rights activists.

“There is a kind of social and cultu­ral justification for a man beating up his wife,” Dhawale tells Outlook. “It runs through the administration, including the judiciary and the police, as well as society at large,” she adds. “A woman complaining about domestic violence is often viewed with suspicion, as someone trying to use the DV Act to incarcerate men.” Dhawale says the implementation of the Act also left a lot to be desired.

It is a common practice, especially in the rural areas, to appoint revenue officers, sub-collectors, and even tehsildars (tax officials) as protection officers for women, as stipulated under the Act. They ser­ve as the first responders in cases of domestic abuse. However, these officers were often burdened with other administrative duties. “They have little interest in helping women who have been abused,” says Dhawale.

Walking a tightrope Artwork titled Yogini by Arpana Caur
Walking a tightrope Artwork titled Yogini by Arpana Caur

The SC had, in March this year, disapproved of the practice of appointing officers from the elite Indian Administrative Service (IAS) as protection officers. But the practice continued unabated. In many districts, there is often only one protection officer, swamped by complaints from across the area under their jurisdiction. “There is very little awareness among wom­en about remedies and laws that can help them,” says Shwetha Shankar, senior director of progra­m­mes, International Foundation for Crime Prev­e­ntion & Victim Care, Chennai. “Commu­n­ity-­le­vel action and empowerment can bridge the gap,” she adds.

Activists also say that some judgments by the courts could weaken the laws to prevent domestic abuse. For instance, in February this year, the SC observed that Section 498A of the IPC was often used by women to “settle personal scores against the husband and relatives”. The bench of Justices S. Abdul Nazeer and Kris­hna Murari, while hearing a plea to quash an FIR filed by a woman in 2019 against her husband and in-laws, alleging harassment for dow­ry, ruled: “Decisions clearly demonstrate that this court has at numerous instances expressed conc­ern over the misuse of Section 498A IPC and the increased tendency of implicating relatives of the husband in matrimonial disputes, without analysing the long-term ramifications of a trial on the complainant as well as the accused.” Activists, however, claim that this judgment has made it difficult to lodge cases under this IPC section. “Section 498A was meant to help wom­en. Now that it has been made a bailable offence it is no longer of use to women as no arrests are bei­ng made under it,” says Dhawale.

A right to rape?

The Delhi High Court’s split verdict on petitions seeking criminalisation of “marital rape” earlier this year left many disappointed. The division bench of Justices Ravi Shakdher and C. Hari Shankar, on May 11, reserved its orders while hearing petitions that challenged Exception 2 of Section 375 of the IPC. Exception 2 keeps non-­consensual sex between husband and wife out of the ambit of rape. While Justice Shakdher held that Exception 2 should be struck down, Justice Hari Shankar disagreed. One observation that the latter made while delivering his verdict sparked a row.

“A husband may, on occasion, compel his wife to have sex with him, though she may not be incli­ned,” he says. “Can it be said, with even a modicum of propriety, that her experience is the same as that of a woman who is ravaged by a stranger?”

According to NFHS-5, based on a sample survey covering 1 lakh households, two of five women have faced physical or sexual violence from their husbands or partners.

“The amount of sexual violence in marriages is alarming,” says AIDWA’s Dhawale. “In most cases, it is a way for the husband to assert his authority over his wife.”

“The lack of any legal framework means women continue to face assaults,” she adds. Dhawale also explained that marital rape could not be addres­sed through divorce or the DV Act because these provided civil remedies while rape was a criminal offence. AIDWA and other gender justice organisations such as RIT Foundation have now appealed to the SC to strike down Exception 2.

India’s neighbour Bhutan has made marital rape a crime, though several South Asian countries do not consider it as such.

The long road ahead

While the law is yet to recognise marital rape, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has issued guidelines that all victims of sexual viole­nce­—­married or not—should be treated equal. This has led to a strange procedural dichotomy. For instance, in 2011, when a 20-year-old marr­ied woman walked into a municipal health centre at Bandra in Mumbai, with wounds to her genitalia, the healthcare workers treated her as a rape survivor. This is reflected in the health centre’s records. However, no case of rape was lodged with the police because the alleged aggressor was her spouse.

According to the latest National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5), based on a sample survey cond­ucted between January 2015 and December 2016, covering 1,00,000 households, two in five women have experienced physical or sexual violence from their husbands or partners. A 2014 working paper, Reporting and incidence of violence against women in India, by A. Gupta, compared NFHS data with NCRB data from previous years and showed that less than one per cent of spo­u­sal sexual violence cases are reported to the police. “Instead of criminalising marital rape, our laws criminalise the victim,” says Dhawale. “Making marital rape a prosecutable offence will automatically raise the number of reported cases and enco­urage more women to speak up about it.” 

(This appeared in the print edition as "No Country For Women?")

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