Crime and control

Sentimental harangues are no answer. Fast-track courts are a useful first step to address rape

Responding to the brutal rape of a 23-year-old woman in the national capital, a case that has shaken Parliament and the nation, the Delhi High Court has announced five fast-track courts to address such incidents in the city. This case is only one of the many that go unnoticed and unpunished across the nation. Yet the decision to allocate more legal resources is certainly reassuring.

This is a far more useful response than the emotional calls for castration and killing that have followed the revelation of the crime. Treating it on par with attempt to murder, as has been suggested, may assuage the feelings of lawmakers, but is not especially likely to avert further such incidents. Studies have underlined that it is not the severity of punishment, but its certainty, that deters criminals. A tendency to report crimes, which raises the expectation of punishment, also deters crime. By those criteria, rape is miserably under-reported, the judicial process is tardy and the chances of conviction slender. Apart from the "stigma" that encourages silence, the investigative system also tends to treat sexual assault with insensitivity, even misogyny. Delay can dilute the case, and the rounds of questioning and examination can make an already shocked and fearful victim feel abused all over again. As Adrienne Rich writes in a moving poem about a rape victim confronting the officer-interrogator — she is "guilty of the crime of being forced".

The problem lies more with inadequate policing and the deeper cultural hostility towards women, than in the legal approach. In India, the testimony of the victim is enough to secure a conviction in most cases of sexual violence, and requires no corroborating evidence. The logic is that sexual assault usually takes place in closed spaces without witnesses, and that medical evidence is often unavailable. This has been a hard-won victory, one that switches the legal default in the victim's favour, without wrangling over physical injury or "character" or prior sexual conduct. And yet, rapes continue to happen, in public and private spaces, dominance continues to be asserted through women's bodies, victim-blaming persists, and women's freedoms are further constricted because of the sense of sexual threat. Rape is a crucial instrument of a patriarchal culture — it stops women from asserting their rights to the outside world, makes them rely on male protectors, and afraid of drawing attention. The real change, then, has to be in the way men and women are socialised.

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