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by Archana Prasad writing in the Indian Communist paper People’s Democracy

THE gang rape of a 23 years old medical student on the night of December 16, 2012, was the rape number 635 of the year in the national capital. At present, it has also become a symbol of the deep-rooted systemic failures that have highlighted the inability of the government to deal with the accelerating rate of crimes against women.

The escalating protests against the rape have also showed how the long standing demands of democratic women’s movements have now entered the public consciousness. For at least a decade and a half now, women’s organisations have been demanding a bill to tackle sexual assaults, fast track courts for speedy trials, standardised investigation procedures to ensure high conviction rates, increased deployment of the police in public places, and relief and rehabilitation for the victims of sexual assault. The spontaneous articulation of some of these demands by young protesters also reflects the small measure of success that women’s organisations have had in sensitising the public consciousness to their demands. However, this popular feeling can only be into an instrument of social and political change if the direction of these protests is both constructive and has a long term perspective.

SEXUAL ASSAULT; LONG TERM TRENDS

It has been widely acknowledged that the increasing trends of sexual assaults against women have accelerated in the period after the economic reforms. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), the number of recorded rapes has gone by approximately 873.3 per cent between 1971 and 2011.

An analysis of the data also shows that the average instances of sexual assaults and rapes have been increasing in the post-reforms period. Between 1971 and 1991 there were 1,15,414 instances of rape recorded by the NCRB — or approximately 6074 rapes per year. In the first decade of reforms, however, this figure went up to 15,466.4 rapes per year, as there were 1,54,664 recorded instances between 1992 and 2001. The last decade has seen an even more alarming rise in such offences to 1,98,139 recorded instances of rape between 2002 and 2011 — or approximately 19,813.9 instances per year. This means that almost 97.5 per cent of the total recorded cases in post-independence India were recorded in between 1991 and 2011.

Further, in the last few years there has been a significant rise in the cases of rapes with instances increasing by 9.6 per cent between 2009 and 2010 and by 9.2 per cent between 2010 and 2011.

Though this trend seems to be declining somewhat at the all-India level, the reverse is happening in Delhi. Between 2010 and 2011 rape cases went up by 13 per cent and between 2011 and 2012 this rate of increase has been 17 per cent (a significant four per cent higher than last year). These statistics are borne out by ground level baseline survey done by the Jagori and UN Women in 2010, which shows that 80 per cent of the surveyed women in Delhi (in a sample of approximately 5,000 people) faced some sort of sexual harassment, whether verbal, visual or physical. Of these, 31 per cent of the women had faced physical harassment and 46 per cent witnessed men assaulting other women. This shows that the definition of ‘sexual assault’ needs to be widened to include a wide range of crimes through which women feel insecure.

This rising trend of recorded violence may be attributed to many more women coming out to report the instances of sexual assault. This can also be attributed to the successes of the women’s movement in forcing changes and providing solidarity to the affected women. But this explanation does not explain the alarming rising of sexual assault in the post-reform period. Perhaps these trends should be seen in the context of a state that is increasingly turning away from its social responsibilities.

GOVT NEGLIGENCE & DISINVESTMENT

The rising protests in the capital against sexual assaults have prompted the Delhi chief minister, Mrs Sheila Dixit, to admit that her city is the national rape capital. Subsequently, she also lamented the fact that she had no control over the Delhi Police and she blamed the police for mishandling the situation. This is clearly an attempt to shift the blame on to the central government and absolve the state government in the matter. However, such an understanding also follows the perspective that sexual assault is only a law and order issue. In fact, the record of the Delhi government in providing a secure environment is abysmal and is recorded in the Jagori-UN Women survey. Around 54 per cent women reported feeling unsafe and vulnerable in crowded public transport and at the bus stops.

An equally important cause of insecurity is the open usage of alcohol and drugs by men in public spaces and the lack of clean and safe public toilets, as reported by approximately 44 per cent women and 40 per cent men.

Lack of effective and visible police presence contributes largely to making Delhi unsafe. As many as 43.1 per cent of men shared this opinion, as against 37 per cent of women. It is therefore interesting that the last factor, though quite significant, is not the most important one as cited in this survey. The survey further highlights the urgent need to address the need to invest in social infrastructure that provides a secure environment.

In this context it is also important to analyse the way in which the state has dealt with the victims of such crimes and the implementation of laws that can address violence against women. For example, the central government allocated a mere Rs one crore and the state government Rs 45 lakh towards the implementation of the Domestic Violence Act 2005. Similarly, the state government established crisis intervention centres for assisting the victims of sexual assault and allocated 30 lakh rupees in the last budget for its functioning. It is thus that its track record in providing hostels and short-stay homes to working women has been even more abysmal. In 2011-12 the state government allocated a mere 12 lakh rupees for the construction of hostels, which went up to 26 lakh rupees in 2012-13. This situation is even worse in the case of allocations for short-stay homes for women in distress — these have come down from 14 lakh rupees in 2011-12 to 12 lakh rupees in 2012-13.

While some of these measures can help to mitigate the circumstances in which sexual assaults take place, the measures to ensure a secure future for the victims of assault are much poorer. The allocations in the scheme for relief of rape victims has come down drastically from Rs 140 crore to Rs 20 crore rupees in the case of the central government. In this matter, however, the record of the state government is also not much better. The Delhi government announced a scheme for the rehabilitation of rape victims in February 2012 and allocated a total amount of Rs 15 crore to it for 2012-13. But by December 2012 only four victims had received a compensation of Rs 12 lakh under this scheme. This tardy progress only shows that the slow progress in addressing the concerns of the victim.

CONVENTIONAL SOCIAL ATTITUDES OF LAW ENFORCERS

A third factor that reveals the real attitude of authorities towards the rape victims is the attitude the police and law enforcement agencies have been adopting. The conviction rate in rape cases is a dismally low 26 per cent in the national capital, and the under-reporting of rape incidents has something to do with the attitude of the police. The survey by the Jagori and UN Women shows that only 0.8 per cent of the surveyed women had reported the instances of sexual harassment to the police in 2010. As many as 58 per cent of the women did not even think of approaching the police while about 42 to 44 per cent of the women thought that policemen would trivialise their crime and blame the victims for their own plight.

This finding is borne out by a Tehelka expose of 30 police stations in the National Capital Region (NCR). Undercover reporters found that 17 senior cops of over a dozen police stations across Gurgaon, NOIDA, Ghaziabad and Faridabad were caught on spy camera blaming women for everything — commenting on their fashionable or revealing clothes to having boyfriends, to visiting pubs, to consuming alcohol, to working alongside men, as the main reasons for instances of rape. Many of them believe that genuine rape victims never approach the police and those who do are either basically extortionists or have loose moral values.

This nineteenth century mindset of the police personnel reveals the way in which an open market economy fosters conventional values even while it promotes the commodification of women. It is for this reason that women’s organisations have been demanding a more sensitised and accountable police force.

The mushrooming protests against the gang rape in the national capital need to be seen in the light of the above mentioned issues. The symbolic value of these protests is that they reflect the need for real systemic changes if crimes against women are to be stopped. For the women’s organisations, the real challenge lies in strategising the use of this moment in forcing the changes that they have been demanding during their long struggles.

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