Nothing will stop rape. Not even harsher penalties. Murderers get death but thousands still get killed. Rape, like all crimes, can only be discouraged (read here). But demanding castration or death for rapists will not achieve that.
Fear of punishment is the most effective deterrent for any crime. Rapists enjoy better than an even chance because of the low conviction rate. Unless prosecution improves, judges who rarely find grounds for awarding jail terms will be less inclined to hand out stricter punishment. While fast-track courts are a must to cut judicial delay, they will serve no purpose without prompt investigation and sound prosecution.
For that, the process needs to be overhauled from stage one. At present, cops usually do all they can to intimidate and dissuade victims. So, all FIRs against rape should be lodged in-camera and every rape-related FIR should be referred to a special gender cell set up in every police district. These dedicated cells should monitor all rape investigations to help build sound prosecution cases.
The laws must be strengthened but only the rarest of rare rape cases should be treated on a par with murder. Blanket death penalty will only encourage rapists to kill their victims. The definition of rape must include all kinds of penetration and not only penile. Laws should also drop terms such as teasing or modesty. Determining an act of rape cannot have anything to do with a victim’s morality which is anyway a subjective consideration.
Not only our cops ( see why they need to change their attitudes here), society itself seeks justification when a bar dancer or a sex worker is raped. We rightfully debate the character of a sexual assault victim to determine the veracity of her charges. As long as the majority, women included, discriminate among victims on the basis of perceived virtue, some rapes will appear less unacceptable than the rest. In an increasingly less “virtuous” society, that only amounts to condoning rape.
Rights activists are against having any misuse clause in rape laws, lest it further inconvenience genuine victims, but the perception that women frequently use rape charges for blackmailing hurts victims more. With checks in place, cops will not have the excuse to prejudge every rape charge. The onus will be on the judiciary which knows better than to penalise a complainant for the prosecution’s failure.
It may sound like a distraction at this emotive hour but while we talk of the big bad cities, sex crimes are more common in villages where under-reporting is near absolute. Rural women are often rape fodder for settling political scores or family feuds. They are also raped when they seek or find a voice. When such cases do rarely surface in the media, they do not shock the candle-happy urban middleclass.
The outraged crowd at Delhi’s India Gate is not obliged to fight for women it cannot identify with. But even within an urban environment, the focus of this anger is on sexual assaults committed by strangers, which are less than 10 per cent of all reported cases. Will the demand for death penalty cover marital rape? Can all the fathers, uncles, husbands, brothers, cousins, teachers, friends and colleagues be policed 24x7 inside four walls?
Also, do we ourselves make it easier for strangers to sexually assault women? We teach every girl since childhood those charters of safety: how they should dress and behave, where they should not go without male escorts, which places they should avoid altogether. These commandments have become the benchmark for propriety. The moment a woman breaks or is forced to break these rules, it sends signals to predatory men: she is either vulnerable or of loose morals.
Imagine Delhi or any Indian city without these safety codes. The so-called provocative clothes stop being so when too commonplace. No unescorted woman appears easy meat when too many of them are out in the late hours. But it is far more challenging to break these social stereotypes than to breach security cordons outside Parliament.
Of course, freedom always demands its price and both men and women pay for foolhardiness. But can we really demand a safe, gender-neutral society if the entries on a woman’s list of don’ts grossly outnumber those on a man’s? And is there any merit in continuing with this disparity since the woman is clearly not any safer for it?
What happened to the 23-year-old a week ago defies the vilest of imagination. Hundreds of sexual offences that occur daily, and mostly under the media radar, are rarely half as vicious. The anger at India Gate is justified but it should not miss the larger picture of almost routine sexual assaults that gnaw away at the very idea of womanhood.
Destruction of public property or lynch mobs cannot make any city rape-proof. Even if every cop on VIP duty is put on patrolling, there will never be enough boots protecting us on every road, lane and home. Making investigation and prosecution swift and effective requires not only training and capacity building but also a significant change in mindset. Our police cannot be very different from us.
Rape will really be discouraged only when no girl finds herself unprotected in a crowd, when no woman is asked why she was out in such company at such an hour. And while we are busy defining and deterring sexual assault, let us demand that stripping women in public be made a heinous crime. Thousands of disenfranchised tribal and dalit women who are routinely paraded naked will be grateful to their educated city-sisters.