||Indian Government Faces Pressure Over Rape Case
||Thursday, February 28, 2013
Citizen Engagement, Institution and HR Management
||Feb 27, 2013
More than two months after a 23-year-old student was raped and thrown from a moving bus, anger continues to boil over on the streets of India.
Protesters have converged across the country demanding justice for the young victim, who died two weeks later, and an end to violence against women.
The Indian government is fending off criticism that it has failed to protect its citizens, with rights groups demanding immediate reforms to laws and policing in the country.
Human rights activist Vrinda Grover says violence against women is endemic, as is a culture of impunity that allows perpetrators to get away with it.
"In so far as women's rights, women's right to life, to liberty is concerned, it's certainly not of great significance or importance, both to the government and to the legal system," she said.
"It's not on anybody's agenda, forget it being a priority issue."
More than 24,000 rapes were reported in 2011, but women's groups say most sex crimes continue to go unreported.
New Delhi has the notorious title of being the 'rape capital' of the country, with 635 registered cases last year.
The National Crime Records Bureau says only about 30 per cent of cases lead to convictions
Lawyer Vrinda Grover says it is not surprising that convictions are so low.
"We are dealing with a legal system starting from the police station right up to the court room where bias [and] prejudice against the woman is inherent," she said.
The sexual assault law itself has been amended only twice since 1860, and still refers to the crime as "outraging the modesty of a woman".
Ms Grover says police routinely refuse to register complaints, and even encourage victims to marry their attackers.
She says marital rape is not even an offence.
"Women are seen as people who are not telling the truth, women are seen as somebody who deserve this sexual violence, or who want it or who asked for it," she said.
"[They] are actually seen not as survivors or victims of the violence, but are seen as accomplices in the crime."
One of those who has experienced both the violence and the police response is Sonali Mukherjee, who has undergone 26 surgeries to recover from an acid attack when she was 17.
Three men from her neighbourhood broke into her home and threw acid on her face, leaving her with burns to 70 per cent of her body, in retaliation for rebuffing their advances.
Ms Mukherjee pursued her attackers in court and won a conviction, but was shocked when a higher court suspended their sentence after just two-and-a-half years because of a weak police investigation.
"We managed to get a sentence of nine years - we sold everything to fight the case and we had so much courage in moving forward [and] even then the court released them," she said.
"The day I heard this, it was so traumatic for me, it was so shocking.
"I said 'God, what kind of society are we living in? Is this law, this government, this legal system, this police, is it all just for show? Do they really provide justice?'."
Under overwhelming pressure to reform the country's laws and the police force, the government has now set up a three-member committee of senior judges to recommend changes.
The team, headed by former Chief Justice of India, J.S Verma, received 80,000 written submissions from the public suggesting a number of amendments, and in late January released a damning 600-page indictment of police conduct and the treatment of victims.
Among other things, the committee recommended the recognition of marital rape, the lifting of impunity from prosecution of army personnel, and the temporary dismissal of politicians accused of sex crimes.
So far the government has passed none of these recommendations.
India's law minister Ashwani Kumar says they have issued an ordinance that recognises crimes like stalking, acid-throwing and voyeurism, and have increased punishment for sex crimes.
"It's a top priority and it's in record time that we brought in a new law in the form of the criminal law amendment ordinance, which was within eight days of the J.S. Verma Committees recommendations," he said.
"In my memory, if my memory does not fail me, I think this has been the fastest work of legislative action on the part of any government in India."
But activists like Ranjana Kumari from the Centre for Social Research, says these small measures are a slap in the face to Indian women.
"Where is the political will? When will our women get the protection? Should the government of India not provide protection to its citizens, even after 65 years of independence?" she said.
"What kind of a democracy is this?"
The Indian Government is due to debate a new sexual assault bill during the current sitting of parliament.