Fast-track courts for rape cases only solution for justice, says ex-J&K women commission chief as sexual crimes rise in Kashmir

Vasundhara Pathak Masoodi says she continues to receive complaints from distressed women even a year after the J&K State Women Commission was abolished by the governnment

Bisma Bhat January 01, 2021 18:20:34 IST
Fast-track courts for rape cases only solution for justice, says ex-J&K women commission chief as sexual crimes rise in Kashmir

File image of former J&K State Women's Commission chief Vasundhara Pathak Masoodi

It has been around 16 months since the Jammu and Kashmir State Commission for Women was abolished following the abrogation of Article 370 and the bifurcation of the erstwhile state into two Union territories, yet the last chairperson of the commission, Vasundhara Pathak Masoodi, continues to receive complaints through emails, calls, and messages from distressed women.

With the abrogation of Article 370 in August 2019, more than 150 laws, including the one that governed the functioning of the State Commission for Women and Child Rights, were repealed. More than a year has passed, however, no step has been taken to establish a women's commission in the Union Territory.

Since there is no platform for the women in Jammu and Kashmir to register their complaints, Masoodi, a  senior lawyer at the Supreme Court, has been receiving complaints from victims of domestic violence and sexual harassment.

In a detailed interview with Bisma Bhat, Masoodi talks about the rise in incidents of violence against women and the importance of a women's commission in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir. Edited excerpts of the interview are as follow:

It has been over a year since the Jammu and Kashmir State Women’s Commission was dissolved. Being the last chairperson of the then women’s commission, do you still receive complaints from victims?

Unfortunately, the Jammu and Kashmir State Women’s Commission was dissolved without putting a new mechanism in place for over a year now. Nevertheless, I have been receiving complaints from victims belonging to different areas in Jammu and Kashmir.

What kind of complaints do you frequently receive from women?

The complaints vary in nature. I not only received complaints against domestic violence, but also against sexual harassment at workplace, child abuse, gender-based discrimination, and medical negligence.

On average how many calls do you receive per month?

Ever since the closure of the J&K Women's Commission, on an average, every month my office has been receiving around 5-10 complaints through calls, email, personal messages and social media.

Did you help these women in distress, and how?

I took up the matter with relevant authorities wherever it was warranted. I also extended my support to the victims through counselling. By counselling I mean, the provision of legal/professional assistance and guidance in resolving personal or psychological problems caused due to the act of violence, wherever we deemed it necessary.

What can you tell us about victims of gender-based and sexual violence in Jammu and Kashmir? Do they belong to a particular socio-economic group?

It has been observed that women and girls from socially and economically disadvantaged groups, rural or far off areas are more vulnerable and are at greater risk of gender-based violence in Jammu and Kashmir. Comparing the rape cases that have happened in the past few years with the recent cases of rape, we can conclude that women and girls who belong to the marginalised sections of the society or those who live in areas that are not easily accessible are more prone to gender-based and sexual violence.

Kashmir was considered a safe place for women, but it has been seeing an increase in crimes against women. There have been reports of gang-rape cases as well. What could be the main reasons for this?

A recent report submitted by the government in the High Court of Jammu and Kashmir revealed that 16 cases of rape, 64 cases of molestation and one case of eve-teasing were reported in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir during the lockdown period (April to September). These are the cases that got reported, and I am sure the number is way more than what has been reported. Jammu and Kashmir is predominantly a hilly area wherein it's difficult for women to reach out to law and order agencies to report such crimes in normal circumstances, needless to say, things apparently turned much difficult for the victims during the lockdown.

There has also been an unprecedented upsurge in gangrapes and rapes of minor girls by relatives and neighbours that sometimes result in tragic deaths. There have also been cases wherein women have been raped by their close relatives or an acquaintance. By and large, the reasons for the increase in such cases are no different from those reported in other states. Lack of deterrence, low conviction, long drawn out legal proceedings, financial constraints, societal pressure and unwillingness to report are some of the main reasons because of which cases of sexual violence continue to happen unabashedly.

You mentioned prolonged judicial process as one of the factors for the increase in cases of violence against women. Why does it take years to announce a decision in such cases?

There is a famous legal saying: “Justice delayed is justice denied”. Definitely, the delay in dispensation of justice in cases of rape and sexual offences, which ultimately results in low conviction rate, is one of the most crucial factors behind the spiralling of such cases. Because of certain loopholes in the criminal justice system, the accused is acquitted at the end of the day thereby making a mockery and frustrating the purpose of the entire criminal justice system.

Shortages of forensic labs, fast-track courts, well-trained investigators, lackadaisical approach by the prosecution, and delay in filing of charge-sheet, improper handling of forensic evidence, unwanted adjournments are some of the reasons that cause such delay.

Due to the delay, important evidence gets spoilt or is tempered with and often the witnesses either disappear or turn hostile. At times, the victims and their families run out of resources, hence the acquittal of the accused.

I strongly advocate the establishment of fast track courts to try such cases so the cases could reach their logical conclusion at the earliest and the victim may not have to suffer any further trauma due to a delay in the trial.

How important was the State Women’s Commission for the safety of women and child rights in Jammu and Kashmir?

The Jammu and Kashmir State Commission For Protection of Women and Child Rights (JKSCPWCR) was a masterpiece of legislation that conjointly provided for the protection of women and child rights. Some of the important powers of the commission included, but not limiting to, investigation of matters relating to constitutional and legal safeguards for women and children, taking up cases of violations of rights of women and children, to inspect homes, jails, hospitals and other places where women and children are lodged or kept or imprisoned.

The greatest potential for intervention, personally my favourite, was the power to look into complaints and “take suo-motu cognisance” of violation of rights. The JKSCPWCR Act provided for all the powers of a civil court including that to summon a person from any part of Jammu and Kashmir, to require the production of documents, require evidence on affidavits, access to public records and the power of “issuing commissions for the examination of witnesses and documents”.

The dynamism of the office of the chairperson of the commission coupled with the aforesaid powers and through its members and civil society organisations can reach out to people at the grassroots to ensure the implementation of welfare laws in letter and spirit.

Do you think law enforcing agencies should play a more effective role in stopping these crimes?

Strict implementation of laws by law enforcement agencies is an extremely crucial factor in clamping down on such ignoble crimes. The role of law-enforcement agencies begins the moment a crime is reported till the criminal is prosecuted and punished. Any soft or sluggish approach or negligence in terms of conducting an investigation, collecting evidence or recording statements of credible witnesses, delay in filing the charge-sheet can lead to an unfortunate acquittal of the culprit and denial of justice to victims.

Moreover, the whole purpose of laws against sexual violence is frustrated if justice is not delivered in time. The judiciary has the primary responsibility of enforcing fundamental rights through constitutional remedies. Therefore, the trial in such cases should be run and concluded on a fast-track basis so that victims of sexual violence are not denied justice due to unwanted and unwarranted delays.

What should governments do to stop crimes against women?

I personally feel that crime against women and children could be curtailed to a considerable extent if we chart out a strategy whereby we focus equally on crime prevention and post-crime remedies.

There cannot be a bullet shot approach in stopping such crimes as the root of such crimes lie in the mindset which is built over years. Hence, besides creating stringent provisions of law, there must be a comprehensive strategy to infuse and inculcate virtues of morality in young boys by involving them in various kinds of workshops and orientation programmes wherein importance and role of girls and women in different capacities must be taught to them on a regular basis.

Simultaneously, there should be the provision of safe spaces at public places, quick and swift crime response system, research on attitudes, perceptions, and behaviours of men and boys, as well as young people, related to various forms of violence. There should also be provisions for raising awareness, community mobilization, and educational programmes, as well as legal and policy reforms, and widespread awareness of sexual violence laws through print media, electronic media and social media.

Unfortunately, despite so much water has flown under the bridge, we have yet not reached the halfway mark towards achieving a just and ideal society for women.

There is only one woman police station in the entire Valley. Do you think, there is a need to set up more women police stations in every district?

Women who are victims of violence or harassment do not find it easy to approach the police or other authorities in Jammu and Kashmir for help or support. It would, therefore, be desirable to provide Women's Police Station or Mahila Police Station in each and every district. I would go a step further and suggest that there should be chowkies of Women’s Police Station in each district so that women do not have to travel much in terms of seeking redressal of their complaints.

I would also urge the UT administration to increase focused community outreach by engaging Mahila Police Volunteers (MPVs) in the UT of Jammu and Kashmir who will act as an interface between police and the community to facilitate women in distress and conduct mass awareness programmes to sensitise masses on gender equality and women-friendly laws.

Do you think there is a need to establish old age homes and shelter homes for homeless women?

It has been observed that the elders are denied care, respect and dignity at their homes, a trend which is unusual and unheard of in a place like Jammu and Kashmir. Hence, old age homes become the last resort for such lonely and neglected elderly people.

On the other hand, there is also a huge dearth of shelter homes for women in Jammu and Kashmir because of which victims of domestic violence face acute problems in terms of shelter. And, at times, they fear availing any legal remedies as they don’t have any place to go to after formally launching a lawsuit or filing a criminal complaint against the offender. Therefore, I certainly believe that in order to fructify the welfare laws and to make them meaningful, the government must accelerate the efforts to establish sufficient old age and shelter homes in Jammu and Kashmir.

Updated Date:

Find latest and upcoming tech gadgets online on Tech2 Gadgets. Get technology news, gadgets reviews & ratings. Popular gadgets including laptop, tablet and mobile specifications, features, prices, comparison.

also read

Sajad Lone's J&K People's Conference quits PAGD, accuses other members of fielding proxy candidates in DDC polls
Politics

Sajad Lone's J&K People's Conference quits PAGD, accuses other members of fielding proxy candidates in DDC polls

In a letter to PAGD head and National Conference president Farooq Abdullah, Lone also blamed the proxy candidates behind the low vote share of PAGD constituent parties in the district development council (DDC) elections

VK Sasikala's health normal and stable, tests negative for COVID-19, say doctors
India

VK Sasikala's health normal and stable, tests negative for COVID-19, say doctors

The expelled AIADMK leader was admitted to the Parappanna Agrahara prison hospital in Bengaluru on Wednesday after complaining of fever and breathlessness

Tamil Nadu Assembly polls 2021: K Palaniswami rules out chances of Sasikala rejoining AIADMK ahead of elections
Politics

Tamil Nadu Assembly polls 2021: K Palaniswami rules out chances of Sasikala rejoining AIADMK ahead of elections

Palaniswami said that there is '100 percent no chance' of her rejoining the party. Sasikala, who is in prison over a corruption case, is expected to be released on 27 January