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Rape Victims Pressure Indian Government to Reform Justice System

NEW DELHI, INDIA – Three years ago, Jasjeet Kaur, 32, went to meet a local senior police officer, the son of a politician, to file a complaint about someone who owed her money. She says the officer raped her. Then, his subordinates beat her, breaking her legs and arms.

She says she remains committed to bringing her perpetrators to justice, but alleges that police have not registered her formal complaint because the accused was a police officer. She has filed several petitions in court to order police to register her complaint.

“I have begged for justice,” she says, as tears fill her eyes.

Kaur refuses to give up her fight.

“From hospitals to police stations and then to courtrooms, the case has been going on and on,” Kaur says. “There are times when I feel drained of all the energy, but giving up is no way.”

Kaur traveled 140 miles from Ludhiana, a city in the state of Punjab, to New Delhi to join the wave of protests following the December gang rape and death of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student in a moving bus in the capital. The public outcry about a normally shameful topic gave her courage not only to participate in these protests, but also to make herself heard, she says.

Kaur says she used to conceal her identity regarding the taboo topic – but not anymore. Braving the chilly winter, she sits in Jantar Mantar, New Delhi's protest hub, and starts her personal hunger strike to draw the authorities’ attention to a lack of justice for rape victims.

“There are many women who, like me, are stuck in the legal tangle and waiting for justice,” she says. “I am here for them as much as I am here for myself.”

India’s president signed new laws on Sunday against rape and sexual violence, but some say they’re not enough. Young people and women’s rights activists throughout India have been protesting impediments in the justice system for victims of sexual violence since the fatal December gang rape. Their public demonstrations mark a monumental shift toward openly discussing rape, a traditionally taboo and stigmatized subject in Indian culture, as well as other gender issues. In addition to new laws, the government and police are employing other measures to boost the safety of women.

Reports of rape in India increased 9.2 percent from 2010 to 2011, with a conviction rate of 26 percent, according to the National Crime Records Bureau’s 2011 crime report. Rape incidents more than doubled from 10,410 cases in 1991 to 24,206 in 2011 and more than quadrupled from 5,409 cases in 1981.

Cases of rape take years, sometimes as long as five to 15 years, says Arjun Shekhar, a founding member of Commutiny, an organization that promotes youth development in India.

President Pranab Mukherjee approved Sunday new laws against rape and sexual violence.

The laws strengthen punishments for sexual abuse, with the death penalty possible in cases in which victims die or are left in a persistent vegetative state. They also include crimes such as voyeurism, stalking, acid attacks and trafficking under criminal law for the first time.
While many are happy that the government has taken action, others say the laws don’t reach far enough.

After the fatal December gang rape, the government formed a three-member committee of former judges, headed by J.S. Verma, former chief justice of the Supreme Court. The committee’s January 2013 report recommended how to tackle the rise of violence against women. Its recommendations included amendments to the criminal law to hasten trials and to enhance punishments for perpetrators – including police and public servants – convicted of committing sexual assault against women.

But Jasjit Purewal, a women’s rights activist, said during a phone interview that the new laws didn’t fulfill the committee’s recommendations.

“The panel’s call for criminal penalties in cases of marital rape, as well as the prosecution of military personnel who commit sexual assaults, have been dropped,” she says. “In addition, the Verma committee pointedly rejected the death penalty in cases of rape, and death penalty has been included because outraged masses wanted it.”

She called the government's move a knee-jerk reaction aimed to appease massive protests, rather than a real solution.

“Justice Verma presented a wonderful report, which looked at the problem holistically,” she says. “But I am disappointed at the new ordinance.”

The new laws came after more than a month of protests led by youths and women’s rights activists demanding stringent legislation to curb rape in the country.

Many blame corruption in the justice system for the increase in the number of rapes and violence against women, including activist Kiran Bedi, India’s first woman to join the Indian Police Service, the highest-ranking police in India.

“There is deep-rooted corruption at every level, and that is affecting the entire system, including police, prosecution and politicians,” says Bedi, who is now retired. “We have so many charged criminals as politicians who are framing the laws.”

Bedi calls for a “youth-for-youth movement” in the country and a social audit on a regular basis to make the justice system accountable.

“Law students, teachers, activists should come together to conduct an audit of government bodies,” she says. “There have been cases stretching for 14 years in our courts.”

Ravi Nitesh, 23, founder of Mission Bhartiyam, a youth-led nonprofit group in India, says that rape victims face a judicial system with many flaws. Investigation is not scientific, and forensic expertise is lacking. Rather, authorities justify rapes by questioning the victims’ moral characters.

There is no witness protection or victim protection system, he says. There are also not enough lawyers, judges or courts.

Stronger, women-friendly laws will help curb crime against women, says Nitesh, who has been participating in ongoing protests.

Surabhi Sharma, 21, is busy distributing candles and lining up people at Jantar Mantar for a silent march. The fashion design student had never participated in a protest before the Decebmber rape incident.

“The cases of harassment and rape are so common here, and the government has done nothing about it,” she says. “This incident has woken us from our slumber. It’s time to get up and take an action now.”

Sharma says that girls live in fear in New Delhi, infamously called the “rape capital” of the country.

The city earned this title in 2005, when the number of rapes reached a record high – 660 in a year, Shekhar says.

In 2011, more rape reports came from New Delhi – 572 – than from Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai and Hyderabad combined, according to the National Crime Records Bureau.

The student who died during December was gang-raped in a bus in the heart of the capital.

“Commuting through public transport is a task,” Sharma says. “It’s very hard to make the cops understand how difficult it is to bear lecherous looks and lewd remarks.”

Protesters Dilip Agarwal, 21, and his friend Nitin Chaudhary, 20, hold placards reading, “Rape is a national shame.”

“It's shocking that six men ended up doing such brutality with the girl right in the heart of the city,” Agarwal says. “That too, right under the nose of the police. We want fast-track courts.”

Yesterday marked the first day of the trial for the December gang rape case. Five men and one juvenile face charges of murder, rape and kidnapping. The young man who was with the victim at the time of the attack was among 86 witnesses scheduled to testify.The trial is being held in a "fast-track" court designed to speed justice and cut down on red tape.

“We want speedy justice,” Agarwal says.

Both Agarwal and Chaudhary express frustration about the justice system. They say it's often corrupt and delayed.

“Justice delayed is justice denied,” Chaudhary says.

Lengthy cases takes a toll on victims financially and mentally, Shekhar says. Also, the longer the case runs, the more chances of acquittal for the culprit and for the defendant to manipulate the witnesses and intimidate the victim.

Flavia Agnes, a women’s rights activist and founder of Majlis, a legal organization working on women’s issues, says rape victims face an uphill battle to prove their rapists’ guilt.

“All stakeholders – police, medical officers who examine the victim, public prosecutors who are meant to defend her, defense lawyers and the presiding judge who is supposed to be the neutral arbiter – constantly look for evidence of falsity on the part of the victim,” she says.

Agnes says that the country lacks the mechanism to protect victims and other witnesses against the pressure and influence of a powerful rapist from the time the complaint is filed until the time of deposition in a trial court, which may take about a year or two at best.

“There are many constraints that work against a girl from deposing in the court, which calls for a strong witness protection program in order to ensure convictions,” she says.

Protester Manju Mohan, founder of Mahila Dakshata Samiti, a New Delhi-based organization focused on women’s issues and education, has worked on women-related issues for the last 40 years and agrees the judicial system is flawed.

“There is an issue with the entire system, from corrupt politicians to careless police force,” she says. “We need to fix a lot.”

But Mohan says she sees a change in how rape victims are responding to their circumstances.

“Rapes were always happening, just that women didn’t have courage to report them,” she says. “Today, women are coming forward to report abuse.”

Shekhar says that after the gang rape of the 23-year-old physiotherapy student, young people are not only discussing rape, but also issues such as domestic violence, patriarchy and gender.

“We have huge numbers of rapes happening in the country, but those are just reported rapes,” Shekhar says. “The actual number has to be much larger, as many women don't have the courage to come forward and take the legal course. The present upsurge has definitely changed that. The generation has emotionally connected with the victim, and the women's safety has become an issue of absolute importance.”

Women’s rights advocate Naina Kapur, co-founder and director of Sakshi, a nongovernmental organization focused on education, health and community development, says that it’s time that Indian citizens make the most of the momentum sparked by young people.

“We have never seen students speak such a language and protest so vehemently,” Kapur says. “Young girls are openly talking about sex abuse and harassment. But this generation needs direction.”

She says that the country doesn’t need more laws.

“What is needed is a social change,” she says, “and better implementation of the existing laws.”

Nitesh says that the gang rape makes citizens rethink their responsibility in the society, especially toward women.

“They will no longer be mute spectators but will be swift enough to act,” he says. “Also, people are no longer ready to blame the victim for the act.”

Neha Bhasin, a 23-year-old graphic designer and protester in New Delhi, says the culture of blaming victims of sexual harassment is also shifting.

A few months ago, Bhasin says a few boys made lewd remarks to her on a public bus.

“The fellow passengers accused me of provoking the boys with the way I was dressed up,” she says. “I was wearing a sleeveless top with jeans.”

But Bhasin says that she feels more confident today because of the increased publicity and dialogue surrounding the issue.

“Trust me,” she says. “If I raise my voice today, I am sure that at least 10 people are going to stand with me.”

Neeraj Kumar, the commissioner of the Delhi Police, announced in a press conference on Jan. 18 several measures to ensure the safety of women. The Delhi Police plans to recruit more than 2,500 female officers. It also identified 1,600 dark stretches across the city for the local government to make safer.

Rajan Bhagat, public relations officer for the Delhi Police, says that the Delhi government is also posting guards in all 89 government buses as well as many private buses at night. Previously, many of the buses ran at night without guards.

“Every police station has been instructed to run a women's help desk 24/7 and put at least two women officers at the desk at night,” he says. “We have put this entire information on our website for even general public to access.”

Prosecutors say they will finish presenting their case within the month. Meanwhile, Kaur continues her hunger strike. (GPI)

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