There is no reliable empirical data to compare the rise in crimes as it is common knowledge that in our country, women suffer in silence and many crimes go unreported. No strata of society, no class of people seem safe in our present set-up. Despite extensive amendments to the criminal laws relating to crimes against women and children after Nirbhaya, the scenario is still bleak. On a query by Justice N Kirubakaran, the TN State has informed the Madras High Court that in the past 10 years, rate of conviction in rape cases is only 20% in our State compared to the national level of 25%.
The insensitivity of the States to provide a safe atmosphere for women and children is evident from the fact that Rs 3,100 crore of the Nirbhaya Fund is lying unused between 2013 – 2017 as per a news report. The rising crimes against women and children sends shock waves in the minds of people giving rise to calls for speedy justice and even death penalty. Such knee jerk suggestions are neither going to curb crimes nor secure victim justice.
The need of the hour is to analyse the causes of the crime and take necessary steps to ensure that such incidents can be prevented. If the situation still remains unchanged, speedy scientific investigation should be conducted by the prosecution and charge sheets filed in the courts at the earliest. The courts in turn ought to conduct trials with no further delay, ensure that the accused be punished with appropriate punishments and victims be compensated adequately. The State should ensure that sufficient infrastructure and personnel are provided for investigation, prosecution and justice delivery.
Safety of public places depends not merely on the police, but it becomes the duty of the municipal authorities to provide safe roads, parks, auditoriums, hospitals and other public areas. Just installing CCTV cameras in working conditions, adequate lighting and posting watch and ward staff will go a long way in ensuring safety of women and kids using these facilities. All educational institutions, offices, bus/train stations etc. also need the same. Despite the Swathi murder happening in broad day light in the Nungambakkam railway station the accused could not be identified without delay due to lack of CCTV cameras in the station. It took more than a year after the crime to install the cameras in the said station. Admittedly all stations are yet to be provided with such cameras.
Prevention of crimes is not a priority for the State. Like in movies, the police swings into action only after a crime is committed. On July 18, 1998, the Ethiraj college student Sarika Shah fell down from an auto-rickshaw and sustained grievous injuries resulting in her death due to some youth indulging in eve-teasing. The case was first registered as a motor accident but was later converted into a case of murder. The accused were traced, punishment secured. Lots of debates on the issue of eve teasing and its menace led the State to pass Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Harassment of Women Act, 1998. Policewomen in mufti were posted near girls’ schools and colleges, complaint boxes were provided in public places and educational institutions to receive complaints of eve teasing soon after the Sarika Shah murder case.
In August 2002, Nirmala, a postgraduate student became a victim of eve teasing by a group of New College students in broad day light at Sathyam Cinemas and when she objected, she was assaulted. Even the policeman who came to her rescue was assaulted and she was admitted to the Royapettah hospital. White Brigand Squads of women police were constituted to tackle the menace of eve-teasing. The vigilance that was whipped up immediately thereafter did not let even siblings talk to each other without police scrutiny in public places at that time. Moral policing went to ridiculous heights of rounding up opposite sexes meeting in parks and other public places. But now we have no idea where the complaint boxes and white brigand squads have gone.
Most police force is used for maintenance of law and order, VIP Security and other mundane jobs of traffic policing etc. Crime prevention, investigation and prosecution is put to the back seat. Only when there is a shrill cry in the media, criminal investigation is taken up with sincerity and speed. The court examined 30 witnesses, 45 documents and 19 pieces of evidence in the rape and murder case of Hasini and punished Dhahvant in record time. This only proves that if need be police, prosecution and judiciary can deliver speedy justice.
Women police officers are also pressed into bandobust duties and not given specialised training and dedicated to tackle crimes against women and children. All women police stations have become katta-panchayat centres to deal with domestic issues and not any major criminal offences. They act as neither a ‘force’ nor a ‘welfare’ entity when it comes to crimes against women. Handling of the issues with regard to women are still with patriarchal ideologies of blaming the victim for being at the location at the particular hour or wearing particular clothes or being in particular company etc. The scenario is not to empower women to be emboldened to be anywhere at any time in any company but to suppress her with the guilt of an abettor to the crime.
It is high time holistic measures are taken to curb crimes against women and children. As a first step, all educational institutions should promote co-education, with healthy intermingling of both sexes from their very young age.
This will make both sexes act naturally with matured responsibility towards each other. There should be trained counsellors available in all educational institutions and district / panchayat levels whom women can consult with regard to venting their feelings and seeking protection. NGOs and other bodies such as women’s self-help groups could be given para-legal training to help women and children in distress to seek justice. Print, visual and social media should ensure that the victim are empowered to fight for justice and not belittle their cause with their patriarchal ideas. No more Asifa or Kathua should be our slogan and goal. Equality before law and equal protection of law as enshrined in our constitution must be made a reality.
— The writer is Senior Advocate, Madras High Court