Hearing stories of rape victims, Verma panel members wept

The J S Verma panel may have come in for fulsome praise for its speedy and comprehensive work to suggest changes to laws to help boost the safety of women after the Delhi gangrape, but there were moments during the process that were deeply saddening for the three-member committee.

In fact, the first-person stories of young girls and a boy traumatised by years of sexual exploitation were so gut-wrenching that Verma and his two colleagues broke down and wept.

Verma, former Himachal Pradesh high court chief justice Leila Seth and former solicitor-general of India Gopal Subramanium were so moved by the horrific tale of sexual and mental exploitation narrated by a young girl, one of the many who personally appeared before them, that they gave her about Rs 1.5 lakh.

"We gave the money so that she could try and rebuild her life. After hearing her story, all three of us wept... such was the feeling of helplessness that we had," Subramanium told The Indian Express. "Do you know that not only had she been sexually exploited repeatedly, she had also not been paid any wages by the people at whose home she was working? Where is our sense of justice? What about her rights?"

During the sittings, the committee interacted with many rape victims and children who were victims of trafficking and forced drug-abuse and their testimonies form part of the report submitted to the home ministry.

"We had to understand the trauma that rape victims undergo and that is why we interviewed some of them. After talking to them, I felt that the law in India had failed. I said sorry to them," he said.

Subramanium also disclosed that the three members came "very close" to recommending death as punishment for rapists. But all three decided against doing so, instead recommending 20 years imprisonment or life imprisonment until the "rest of that person's natural life".

The panel chose not to heed to the clamour for sentencing rapists to death following strong opposition to it by women's organisations, with most women's rights activists favouring imprisonment for 14 years as punishment.

"During our discussions, we came very close to looking at death. But, there was substantial opinion from the women's organisations," the former solicitor-general said.

Subramanium also said that 63 years after India became a republic, it was "shameful and distressing" that women don't feel secure enough to walk alone in the streets. "Sometimes I wonder what kind of modern, powerful nation we talk about? I think we must openly acknowledge that we have failed the women. Aren't their rights guaranteed under the constitution? Are they lesser citizens than their male counterparts? Despite so many laws, I feel we have failed women," he said.

"While taking to the women, we realised the biases that our women have to undergo on a daily basis, starting with the bias against being born a girl to being held responsible for being molested or abused. It is invariably held to be the woman's fault. Why should we have such a situation?" he asked.

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