Rape laws: ‘No show’ by top officials at session irks panel

The two-day public-hearing session called by the Justice J S Verma Committee, which is reviewing existing rape laws, concluded on Sunday with participants calling for special focus on sexual assaults on women by armed forces in the Northeast and Kashmir.

The session was attended by around 160 experts, including historians, women's rights activists and lawyers. The panel is expected to come out with its report, running into two volumes, on January 23 and has so far received more than 70,000 suggestions.

Apparently, the "negligible presence" of senior officials from ministries and government departments, who were invited to present their views, seems to have irked the panel members.

"The committee members were appalled by the negligible presence of senior representatives from the Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Women and Child Development, Health and Family Welfare, National Commission for Women, among others. The junior officials from these ministries were even pulled up for their lack of interest," said a member who wished to remain unnamed.

Ranjana Kumari of Delhi-based Centre for Social Research said that the role of armed forces in sexual assaults on women was discussed at length. "Women groups gave detailed presentations on these kinds of atrocities," she said.

A panel of six women lawyers gave the committee insights into the kind of treatment meted out to rape victims in courts. "We presented our views based on our experiences in the courtrooms. A court is an unpleasant place for a victim to be. I gave presentation on how our legal system fails the survivor," said Rebecca John, a lawyer from Delhi who was invited to speak during the session, 'Interventions on Legal procedures and Practice'.

Women's rights activist Rosemary Dzuvichu from Nagaland said, "There are so many unreported cases of sexual assaults by the armed forces and militant groups in the Northeast," she said.

Professor Ayesha Kidwai of JNU called for changes in Sexual Harassment Bill 2012 to include all institutions and workplaces under the law. "Presently, the Bill does not cover places where there are 10 or less than 10 women employees," she said.

The other topics that the session covered included targeting of Muslim women during communal pogrom, police accountability, punishment and sentencing, sexual and gender minorities and intervention for sex-workers and disability rights.

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