Illusion of law

The small and large ways in which the system is stacked against women must not be lost sight of

The revulsion and rage after the Delhi gangrape of December 16 turned, soon enough, into a demand for lasting change. The first point of focus was, perhaps inevitably, the state. The Justice Verma Committee, set up to examine how the state could best deal with sexual violence, and how women's rights and autonomy could be strengthened, submitted an exhaustive report within a month. Now, the government has pushed many of the suggestions through an ordinance rather than shepherding reforms through Parliament after wider consultation, even though the bills that solidify these changes must eventually be passed in Parliament. Women's groups have expressed their unhappiness, claiming that the ordinance picks and chooses what suits the establishment, and ignores many of the Verma report's vital suggestions. The home minister has countered that assessment, saying that no recommendation had been rejected outright, and that many notable exclusions, like marital rape, would be opened to debate. While the chorus of indignation serves a purpose, the tendency to focus exclusively on the law as the site of salvation must be avoided.

The problem is that, in cases of sexual violence, every system is oriented against women. Most predations occur within families, which also counsel silence. Social pressures weigh in, making the victim feel shamed and helpless. The police is reluctant to take action, when it is not hostile, and the judicial process is tortuous. While the Verma recommendations tackle many of the obvious, fixable flaws and Parliament must exert itself to ensure that these are carried out, legislative changes are only the beginning. When it comes to women's freedoms, the state is only one arena of intervention, and not the primary one. As was seen in the case of the Lokpal bill, it is a constricted and statist response that looks for a single, satisfying law to solve complex social pathologies like corruption.

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