Handle with care

It is encouraging that incursions on a women's sexual autonomy and privacy are now being treated with the seriousness they deserve, and that strict penalties will be attached to them. The Justice Verma committee is finalising its suggestions, the sexual assault bill is set to become more expansive, and the home ministry is reportedly contemplating amending the criminal law bill to include stalking and street sexual harassment issues it dropped from an earlier draft because they were deemed to be difficult to prove in court. So far, they have been bailable offences, lightly punished under sections 354 and 509, framed in terms of "insult to the modesty" of a woman.

India is not alone in this laidback approach. Many jurisdictions are only now squaring with themselves about the extent of the problem, the fear that such predation causes and how it stops women from leading fuller lives. Stalking and intimidation are often brushed away as minor problems, making women feel unsure about reporting them. The police are also unlikely to see the crime for what it is, and tend to trivialise the problem as one of unreciprocated romantic feeling. "Eve teasing" or street sexual harassment, is an experience that women undergo routinely, but they are encouraged to let it be. This indulgent attitude towards harassers creates a situation where they are let off with a small penalty, entrenching the idea that such behaviour has no consequences.

This is also the moment, however, to carefully consider the effects of each step forward. For instance, what impact will making it non-bailable have on sexual harassment and stalking? Magistrates take a call on bail based on the gravity of the crime and other matters like the chance of witnesses being influenced, evidence tampered with, etc and street sexual harassers are still likely to get away easier. While we talk of the continuum of sexual violence, from rape to catcalls and more insidious harassment, it is also important to retain a sense of proportion. Fast-track courts for sexual violence must guard against playing to the gallery, too. They must make sure that no constitutional rights are abridged in the hurry to pronounce verdicts. The focus should be on justice, not speed.

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