What Good Is A Change In The Law Without A Change In Mindsets?
When will attitudes change?
“What as a mother of two children doing out of the house late at night in a club?” was Mamata Banerjee’s (Chief Minister of Bengal) question, when a divorced woman also, a mother of two was gang raped in Kolkata. Questions and statements like these make it amply clear that the problem of women being raped or experiencing other sexual crimes in India cannot simply be resolved by introducing more stringent laws. Nor can it be resolved by granting death sentence to the accused. The problem of rape is more cultural than legal. It requires a change in the mind-set of the people and not simply the laws. More than often, the authorities investigating the rape incident and the politicians have come out and questioned the character of the survivor and made statements like ‘the woman should not have been out so late at night’, or that ‘she was asking for it because of the manner she was dressed in’. These statements not only reflect the apathetic attitude of those who are supposed to implement the law and protect women from sexual crimes, but also the attitude of the society that we live in.
More than the change in laws, there is a need for a change in the manner of thinking and attitudes. Instances of men raping women or throwing acid on them due to the woman’s rejection or resistance towards eve-teasing are rampant. A woman, even though she is the survivor of the crime, faces more stigma and prejudice in society than the man/ men who raped her; there are questions raised regarding her character and she is stripped of her dignity. This fear of the loss of dignity, character assassination and stigmatization is often what prevents women from coming out and speaking up against the sexual crimes faced by them, be it by a stranger or a family member. Women, who do chose to speak up are silenced or shunned from society and labelled as immoral or a whore. It is more than often that the survivor of a sex crime is blamed and her character questioned while, the accused is simply condemned and sentenced, while the woman continues to live on the periphery of society, stigmatized and excluded.
Even if the accused is sentenced or given death penalty, the survivor of the sex crime continues to live denounced in society. Statistics revealed by the National Crime Records Bureau show that between 2009- 2011 there were 1, 22,292 reported rapes and sexual assaults. The number of rapes per year has gradually gone up, between 2010 and 2011, the number of rapes reported increased by 200 in number. In 2009, there were 21,397 reported cases of rape, followed by 22,172 in 2011 and 24,206 in 2011. This steep rise in the annual number of reported rape cases over the past three years can be seen as a clear indication that the solution to reducing sex crimes is not as simple as stronger laws. However, it can safely be assumed that the actual number of sex crimes against women in the country is much higher, since a lot of women would not want to firstly, deal with the hassles of the court procedures which are expensive, embarrassing and harrowing and secondly, want to be treated as out castes in society.
S.K. Ghosh in Indian Women through the Ages classifies rapists into three categories. First being, the category who commit rape as an ‘explosive expression of a pent up sexual impulse’ which is governed by their strong desire for sex; the second being motivated by the ‘impulse to punish and hurt the victim’, rape of women during communal violence or the rape of lower caste women by upper caste men can be seen as an example of this; and the third category according to his is that of ‘aggressive criminals.’ Rape and other forms of sex crimes, thus become a way of men asserting their power over women.
The recent gang-rape and murder of a 26 year old woman in the National Capital popularly known as the Nirbhaya Rape Case, lead to protests across the country, demanding more stringent laws such as death penalty and castration for rape accused. Despite the efforts of the State government such as the setting up of the Justice Verma Committee to amend criminal law in order to provide quicker trials and enhance the punishment for offenders by introducing stricter laws, there has been no decline in the number of sex crimes across the country. Two weeks after this gang- rape on 29th December, a 42-year-old woman was gang raped and dumped in New Delhi. On 31st December, a woman was sexually assault aboard a moving bus in Delhi, while in another incident on the same date a woman was murdered in Rajasthan after a failed rape attempt.
On January 5th, a girl was raped by a bus conductor in Hyderabad. On January 18th, two men in Chennai were held for sexually assaulting a three and a half year old girl. On January 23rd, a three year old girl was raped and murdered in Karimnagar. On January 29th, a 13 year old tribal girl in Thane was raped.
On February 2nd, two men were held for raping a 12 year old girl in Tamil Nadu’s Sivaganga district; while in Bangalore a 19 year old was gang raped. On February 8th, a minor girl was sexually assaulted in Machilipattinam. On the 25th of February, the rape of a 15- year old girl in Bihar and the death of a 21 year old who succumbed to wounds due to an acid attack by the interested party after she rejected his marriage proposal.
These instances reported in English daily The Hindu make it adequately evident that sex crimes are not rare incidents within the country. Every week, a minimum of two rape or sexual assault incidents are reported. If these instances were rare, stricter laws may have been the solution. But the problem as pointed out earlier is not just legal, but largely cultural and somewhat psychological. There is a need for a shift in the paradigms within the discourse of gender in the Indian society, more than within the discourse of law. It is essential to deconstruct the structures that enable the occurrence of these sex crimes and understand why these crimes are occurring and their numbers are on a rise, before bringing about more stringent laws.
The origins- social, cultural, and psychological- of sex crimes need to be understood in-depth and dwelled upon in order to improve and execute laws that will be reduce these crimes. Rape in the present Indian society is understood by men as the ultimate revenge or best lesson to teach a woman who may have rejected them, resisted their inappropriate advances or hurt their egos, since as a result of it the woman is shunned from society, excluded, looked down upon and treated like an outcaste. In the Nirbhaya rape case for instance, the offenders confessed that they raped her in order to ‘teach her a lesson’ for resisting and confronting the offenders, when they passed lewd remarks at her.
Furthermore, there needs to be a change in the way a rape survivor is looked at and perceived by society, with a change of this perception, there can be brought about a decline in the number of sex crimes too, since men in order to assert their authority and power over women, commit such offences. The act of committing the crime and the offender must be condemn, however, in most cases it is the survivor/victim who is condemn and rejected by society, while the offender, is easily accepted back into the society after having completed his/her sentence granted by the court.
Congress MP, K Sudhakaran remarked, that the 16 year old victim in the Suryanelli Rape Case who was raped for 40 days by 42 men in 1996, was a ‘whore’ as she did not try to escape or free herself from the accused. Such remarks and statements, paint a sad picture of how survivors of sex crimes are perceived in society. Not only do they live with the trauma of the horrific incident that scars them for life, they also have to deal with stigmatization, condemnation and character assassination, despite being the survivor/victim of the offence.
Even during the court hearings the victim is not spared, the defence of the accused in an attempt to prove his client innocent, raises questions regarding the character and morality of the woman concerned and does not hesitate while enquiring about her sexual past, irrespective of whether it is relevant to the case or not. In the Mathura Rape Case (1978), the accused were declared innocent, despite forensic evidence against them, the justification for which was that the victim was ‘habituated to sexual intercourse’ and had ‘consented’ to the act.
Since, in Indian society rape survivors/victims are more than often the ones blamed and condemned, men in order to proclaim that they are superior commit sex crimes; in order to shame the woman and reaffirm themselves that they are the more powerful. Sex crimes thus, become a matter of power and gender politics. Irrespective how stringent the laws are, this frame of thought will not change. Therefore, there is a greater need for paradigmatic shift within the discourse on gender, rather than stronger laws. But since the required paradigmatic shift will not occur over night, the only thing that can be done in the current scenario is implementation of stronger laws.
When a girl is sexually assaulted, it leaves a deep psychological impact on her and affects every aspect of her life. If for example, an 8 year old girl is sexually assaulted by a particular person. The girl tells her parents, and they file a case following which the accused is sentenced to X years of life in prison, after the completion of which he is released. In this given scenario, the offender can rehabilitate himself into society and may live with little or no remorse; however, the survivor often goes through life having to face physical, mental and social repercussions of that one incident. The degree of these repercussions depends on the coping mechanisms of the child herself and what rehabilitation or support was offered to her after the experience. Hence, the degree of severity of the punishment has to be at par with the degree of cruelty and/or damage inflicted on the survivor. When a sex crime is committed, it is not simple a form of physical violence but also a form of psychological violence. A death sentence, considering all the effects – both direct and indirect, on the survivor, is too simple a solution, since it in no way what so ever, punishes the accused for the lifelong psychological violence inflicted by him. No punishment given to the perpetuator of a sex crime will be enough to compensate for the psychological trauma faced by the survivor and thus, while framing the laws it needs to be thought whether death penalty or life sentence will be punishment enough for the grave psychological violence committed.
In conclusion, in the framing of stronger laws it is essential that not just the nature of the crime but the irreversible damage caused to the survivor/victim is also taken into account. The law must be framed in a manner that it instils fear in the mind, which as can be seen by the increase in the number of sex crimes over the years, the current law clearly does not.
Ghosh. K, S,: 1989; “Indian Women Through the Ages”; Ashish Publishing House; New Delhi.