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A 16-year-old girl in Kolkata was gang raped twice in October, the second time immediately after she registered an FIR with the police. The rape of the minor is an example of how despite the passage of a stringent Act against sexual crimes and a promise of providing an environment of greater safety for women to speak against violence, not much has changed in actual terms.
The Criminal Law Amendment Act that came into existence in March 2013 amended various sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), the Code of Criminal Procedure and the Indian Evidence Act, with an aim of providing a strong deterrent against crimes like rapes. The Act inserted Section 166 A in the IPC which provides for rigorous punishment up to 2 years for public servants disregarding directions while investigating rape. In addition, the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act was also strengthened. POCSO envisions police as child protectors. Under it, the police is required to make arrangements for the care and protection of a child who has been sexually abused.
However, these provisions did nothing to save the Kolkata rape victim. In fact, her registering the FIR and then pursuing it led the culprits to allegedly burning her alive. According to the Justice Varma Committee report that guided the fast track passage of the Criminal Law Amendment Act, “Failure of good governance is the obvious root cause for the current unsafe environment eroding the rule of law, and not the want of needed legislation”. The report also warned that in the absence of “attitudinal changes”, mere changes in law cannot correct the gender bias that plagues Indian society.
Statistics justify the observations of the committee. A year after the Act came to function; rape and other crimes against women have increased, rather than decreased. Delhi alone has seen a 129% increase in rape. Compared to 2012 when 680 cases were registered, 2013 saw 1559 registered cases.
A victim who speaks out against rape not only requires legal protection, but also support from society. However, the mindsets of people are largely unchanged. Many, including those in authority, continue to believe that women ‘invite’ rape by dressing in a certain way, stepping outside their homes after a certain hour or visiting certain places. The question then becomes if change in legal procedures can bring about reform in society?
There are differing views on this among activists; some like Dr. Nandita Shah, co- Director Akshara asserts that some changes are definitely visible. While the judicial, medical and police structures are still inadequate, what has changed since the passage of the law is that it has broadened the definition of rape which she views as a positive change. “Earlier traumatic experiences of sexual assault would make a victim feel stigmatized, but now with the broadening of rape to include non-penetrative assault, such victims are encouraged to speak out and seek justice”. She points out to the Tehelka case where the journalist pointedly referred to the new law while seeking a trial for rape.
Others like Kavita Srivastava, National Secretary; People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL)feel that while Criminal Law Amendment Act was welcomed as changes relating to criminal law and sexual violence came after 31 years, there is still a long way to go before the law achieves its stated purpose. “We welcomed the processes (behind the law) as it was demanded from the streets and the Verma committee report was extremely participatory. However, nine months since it has been implemented, it is clear that the police still does not know the new law. Though some trainings have been conducted, it will take a long time for the Thana level police to know the sections and in particular the application of the Law. Lay persons and survivors of violence are even further removed from knowing the changes and therefore do not directly feel empowered. Unless the attitude of the police changes, the law will be a change agent only on paper”.
A year has passed since the Delhi gang rape shook the collective conscience of the country. While a larger discussion on women’s safety continues to be kept alive by media, activists and academia, there seems little impact of the Criminal Law Amendment Act on the lives of women sufferers of sexual violence. Though, the new Act addresses sexual crimes committed by those in position of authority, often, police medical practitioners, advocates, even judges make voicing violence more difficult for women, rather than encouraging them. For one, court processes and police procedures need quick adaptation to the changes in law and then implement them. If mere change in law equated changed attitudes, then the police would have ensured protection of the minor in Kolkata by sending her to a shelter and prevented her death. Further, while change in law may serve as a first step, there remains a need to spread awareness to create an environment of sensitive support, so that the law benefits women both in letter and in spirit.