News that a 25-year-old woman has been raped in a taxi in New Dehli has once more focussed attention on India's laws on sexual violence. Key "human rights and rape in India" into an internet search engine and the results are shocking. The Indian Penal Code, criminalises rape but there is still a real need for reform of both laws and practice in the context of sexual violence, particularly in the sphere of effective enforcement. India's criminal justice system has been described as "slow, overburdened, and under-funded" which has exacerbated the plight of rape and sexual assault victims.
It is nearly 2 years since a 23-year-old student who was gang raped and assaulted on a bus in New Delhi, died from her injuries. Her death led to demonstrations across India focussing attention on the state of the law in India and how it is enforced. According to the National Crime Records Bureau for India, 24,206 rape cases were registered in India in 2011. These were only the ones registered which means the scale of the problem is significantly higher. It is perfectly plain that the issue is not just one of law making but also of cultural change.
In March 2013, a Government inquiry set up after the new Delhi gang-rape produced a huge report which recommended tougher penalties, a broadening of the definition of what constitutes sexual assault, quicker trials, more training and accountability for police conducting rape investigations suggesting what is perhaps obvious - that there is a need for attitudinal change in order to prevent the huge numbers of sexual crime in India which will not be achieved merely by increasing punishments. It is well worth a read and, despite reporting in only 30 days, is a comprehensive and wide ranging document which expresses the fervent hope "that the concern and urgency shown by the Government in constituting it will not wane with the passage of time and the publication of our report; and that the constitutional promise of gender justice in a social order with the egalitarian ethos will soon be realized without much ado. A positive reaction to the tragedy which triggered this response of the government would be the real tribute to the memory of the victim of gang rape and to the honour of the womenfolk".
New laws followed the inquiry report on stalking, voyeurism, sexual harassment, sentencing and mandatory police reporting of complaints of sexual attacks but, laws are not enough and as time passes and another woman is raped, the question is whether all the efforts of the report writers to urge a change in mind-set have failed.
In August 2013, 7 months after the inquiry recommendations, it was reported that a 22-year-old photojournalist was raped in Mumbai while on an assignment. This led to calls that the Government was reacting too slowly to the pressing need to combat sexual violence, particularly against women in India. There are problems in India with support and care for victims, humiliating systems to register complaints with the police. There is also evidence of failures in medical examinations and recording mechanisms where doctors have apparently focussed on whether the victim is a virgin or what evidence there is that she fought back, neither of which is a pre-requisite for proving non-consensual penile penetration. Despite the fact that in any jurisdiction, most abuse takes place behind closed doors, in India, there is still no recognition of marital rape and in the context of sexual assault, whilst rape (penile penetration) is now defined, sexual assault still focusses on whether modesty is offended. There are reports that some police forces in India have now had gender sensitisation training but abuse still goes unreported, often due to concerns about family honour rather than the health and well-being of the victims and pre-conceptions that rape only involves strangers.
In June 2014, the new BJP-led government pledged "zero tolerance" for violence against women in response to the gang-rape of two cousins in Uttar Pradesh. It is perfectly clear that India needs to change if it is to fulfil its constitutional mandate to protect gender equality and to change fast. All rapes are equally serious and traumatic for the victim and have a devastating effect on families. There really is no honour in a failure to protect women and girls from violence. Enforcement of domestic laws is a pressing priority for India. Serial rape and abuse following child grooming and serial abusers who offend in in more than one jurisdiction also need to be dealt with. India has a long way to go and needs to move far more quickly than it has been to protect its people. Interestingly, The International Bar Association has recently contributed to a project to compile a database with information relating to rape laws around the world. The survey includes questions such as: 'Is rape in marriage against the law?' and 'Does the law forgive rape if the perpetrator marries the victim?' Verified information will be included in a report to be presented at the UN Commission on the Status of Women in New York in March 2015. I have completed the section on England and Wales. It will be interesting to see the results from India. Gender based violence is a global problem and India's slow progress will continue to be the focus of international attention as victims make the headlines and cultures fail to change.