Today's Editorial

28 January 2017

The consequences of crime against women



Source: By Mihira Sood: Mint



Addressing any crime requires intervention at three levels: incentive, opportunity and consequence. Much has already been said on the need for a change in our social attitudes that would reduce the incentive to commit such crimes, and on the impact that better transport systems and other facilities would have in reducing the opportunity aspect. It is the last aspect—of consequences—that I want to address, specifically, the limited consequences for perpetrators, and the very significant consequences for victims, both in choosing to stay away from the legal system as well as when they seek redress.


As a lawyer working on women’s rights, I have come across numerous cases of street harassment and molestation. The standard experience of women who approach the police in such cases is to either be blamed for it (through her dress, attitude, alcohol consumption, time and place of incident, or any other detail that might go against her) or to be thought of as lucky (for being only harassed and not raped), and thus treated with very little seriousness.


Pause to reflect on this a moment: We live in a country where a victim of molestation is called lucky, where groping is the new normal. How low have we sunk? Why is it so difficult for us to place a high value on a person’s life and sense of dignity? And it isn’t just the police; this belief is so deeply ingrained, that the victim’s own friends and family, and the victim herself feel relieved that it was “only” harassment or molestation.


Some of these complaints eventually reach the judiciary, and there begins a long, expensive, often abusive and very burdensome process, that wreaks havoc on a person’s psyche, self-esteem, personal life and financial resources, usually ending in low conviction rates with large dollops of judicial sermonizing. Most complainants who do approach the police are happy to have the perpetrator picked up and taught a lesson, but without the permanent record or the public scandal of a criminal case. The police encourage this, because it saves them having to pursue a case, and they are still able to intervene, satisfy the complainant and demonstrate their power. That leaves the bulk of cases that see neither the police nor the judiciary, festering only in the mind of the victim. These anecdotes are quite routinely dismissed for failing to approach the authorities.


These, then, are the consequences that require intervention: police practices, judicial processes and the familial and social discourse that take place in the aftermath of an incident. Harsher punishments are an easy and ineffective escape route to avoid doing the hard work of legal and police reform. We need instead a facilitative legal system that actively encourages and supports women, for police to take these offences seriously and act professionally and to turn up in court when the cases are being prosecuted—for all cases and not just the ones involving empowered upper-class women or cases with high media pressure.


As for the judiciary, cases must be dealt with in a reasonable amount of time. If we dispensed with archaic regulations and formalities that would allow a complainant to understand what was going on in the case, we would be able to cut down substantially on both the time and the legal expenses it takes to prosecute a case. The use of technology by police stations and the lower judiciary is still very low. Case information is only infrequently updated on the websites of both institutions. We have to work on protection for victims who are threatened by backlash.


And lastly, we need to change ourselves, we need to change the way we react to these incidents, of which I am highlighting three over here.


  1. Not all men: Let’s be clear, nobody is saying all men are rapists or molesters. Why are these important conversations seen as personal attacks? When we talk of human devastation to the environment, nobody silences discussion by saying—not all humans. Andwhat is the effect of this hypersensitivity?Shutting down women’s voices, and hijacking conversations to seek praise for not groping women—is that really the contribution you want to make?


  1. Invokingparochial, regional pride to suggest that the problem is being overblown. When people in Mumbai or Bengaluru suggest that sexual violence is a Delhi problem, and Delhiites say it’s because of Haryanvis, and Haryana blames it on Western culture, all we are doing is deflecting responsibility and refusing yet another opportunity to reflect on our own sexist practices.


  1. “Molestation is wrong but at the same time one must be careful” and other such “moderate” or “concerned” statements that are self-contradictory and make no sense. Would anyone suggest that people stay home to avoid terror attacks, and dismiss their trauma by suggesting they invited it?

This is not just drawing-room chatter or irrelevant social media musing—it has severe consequences, for it affects how the police and the judiciary (who are, after all, part of our society) see these issues. Second, at the heart of it is a question of confidence—who are we emboldening with this rhetoric, and who are we scaring off? Instead of giving courage to victims and warning perpetrators, our reactions do the reverse, making clear to us—all potential victims and perpetrators—what, if any, consequences we will face.

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