Remaking ourselves

Women are claiming the public space as equal citizens. This must be supported by law, social attitudes

The collective grief and sorrow across the country over the tragic death of the brave young woman deepens when one considers that the horrific incident could have been avoided had the government and the police done their duty in implementing earlier decisions. Security measures are made up of what may seem small steps, such as implementing the prohibition on tinted windows in buses, but the absence of such measures permits the kind of brutality the young woman was subjected to in a moving bus in the heart of the capital. The traumatic procedures for a rape victim are supposed to have been made more sensitive. But she had to record her statement not once, twice, but three times, first to the police, then to the sub-divisional magistrate and finally to the magistrate, because of the mess-up between the Delhi government and the police. That this could happen in a case that was the focus of national attention also highlights the deep flaws and infirmities in procedures and legal frameworks to bring justice to victims of rape and the utter lack of accountability. These aspects become even more critical when the perpetrators of sexual violence are men with power, whether economic social or political, who can manipulate the system, and their victims are women of the so-called lower castes, Dalits or tribals, or belong to the working classes who have little or no access to justice.

The terrible tragedy should, at least now, spur the Central and state governments to take action on the long-pending requirement for reform in laws and procedures concerning sexual assault. A special session of Parliament to discuss changes required in the laws regarding women would have meaning if lawmakers were sensitive to such issues. In a previous session of Parliament, the bill for prevention of sexual harassment at the workplace, a flawed piece of legislation, was pushed through the Lok Sabha without even a discussion and has not yet come up in the Rajya Sabha. Amendments to the clauses in the IPC and the CrPc concerning rape and sexual harassment of women were introduced in Parliament earlier this month and referred to a standing committee. Women's organisations, along with the National Commission for Women, had worked on a draft to reform major weaknesses in the present law. The government draft has accepted some of the recommendations, including a better definition in the clause on rape and other forms of sexual assault. It also has an additional clause to punish officials not implementing the law, including directions for investigation. However, it has subverted the basic thrust of the draft by making it gender neutral. Thus, the terms "female", for the victim, or "male", for the perpetrator of the crime, have been replaced by the gender-neutral term "person". This trivialises the experience of women victims. If the government's case is to include in the law's ambit the prevention of coercive same-sex violence, it should first end its utter hypocrisy on the rights of people in same-sex consensual relations and decriminalise laws concerning homosexuality. It can then draft a separate clause on this aspect. But to dilute a law intended to prevent sexual violence against women by making it gender neutral is highly objectionable.

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