Change hearts, not laws

Responding to gender-based violence

Another day. Another brutal rape. Another horrific gang-rape. Another round of outrage.

On the last day of our recent 16 day-long campaign to raise awareness around gender-based violence, a young girl asked: What’s the point of punishing the rapist? It’s not going to improve the life of the victim. And then she made the time-honoured suggestion that the rapist and the victim should be married. That would take care of the primary problem created by rape: that no one would marry the victim once it was known that she had been raped. Of course, the poor child was immediately upbraided by all and sundry for expressing such a view. (She said, “It was just an example of what society thinks!” And she is right.) A week later, I think this exchange really points to two problematic responses to rape in particular, but many kinds of violence in general.

The first is to “blame the victim”. The rape (or molestation or harassment) has left her ‘defiled.’ Our language reflects this: rape is described as ‘despoiling’ (‘kedututaan’ in Tamil) or “the loss of honour” (“izzat lootna” in Hindi). Street sexual harassment is “eve-teasing,” further romanticised by catchy songs in our films that equate assault with seduction. Prevention lies in protection; the movement of the potential victim is limited — no school or college after puberty; dress codes are imposed, and different degrees of seclusion mandated. Sexual violence is considered an offence against patriarchal family honour, and therefore, the solution lies in minimising dishonour — marrying the victim to the assailant.


Of course, neither diagnosis nor prescription is correct. Sexual and gender-based violence are acts of violence against the individual, first and foremost. They outrage not our honour but our sense of humanity. Like other acts of violence — murder, battery, for instance — acts of sexual and gender-based violence require justice and punishment — justice for the victim and punishment for the assailant. The marriage solution offers lifelong punishment for the victim and absolution for the assailant. The Imrana case, in 2005, illustrates its absurdity: Imrana was raped by her father-in-law, and the community panchayat, declaring her marriage void, asked her to live with her father-in-law.

Moreover, would society approve this solution for incestuous rape? Newly released NCRB data tells us that in 2011, of 22,549 rape victims who knew their assailants, 267 were raped by parents and 1,560 by other relatives. These 22,549 form just over half of the 42,968 cases reported last year, which are an unknown percentage of all rapes that occur every year.

And what about other forms of violence? There is a laundry list of types of sexual and gender-based violence, experienced by all humans, which begin at conception with sex-selective abortion and end with death. If marriage resolves the problem of rape, what resolves marital rape? And foeticide, female genital mutilation, street sexual harassment, workplace harassment, dowry-related cruelty, honour killings (where seeking to get married is the problem) and acid attacks?

The second problematic response is to seek ever-harsher sentences on anyone convicted of these offences. This is of course, a contrast to the first response. In today’s state of permanent public outrage, we seek the death penalty for a host of offences. I remember hearing it in the early post-Mathura years of the Indian women’s movement, and the logic still rings true, that it is counter-productive to seek very harsh sentences for any crime because it raises the evidentiary bar so high that no judge is willing to impose the sentence. Conviction becomes rare, and so instead of the seven years we thought were too little, the rapist gets virtually no punishment. This makes sense to me, and I always think of that textbook summary of Sher Shah’s taxation dictum: Levy leniently, collect strictly. Let there be no doubt that those found guilty will be punished, let there be no scope for reduction of their sentences once convicted, but let the punishment not seem forbiddingly large to the judge.

Some of us concede that existing Indian laws relating to gender-based violence, are by and large good laws. We lament poor implementation; our police are ineffectual, ill-trained, lacking in will, amenable to influence, reads our long litany which segues to our other hobby-horse: corruption. While there is some truth to this, we know from our experience that there are well-intentioned and efficient police personnel and good police initiatives even as there are dedicated lawyers and committed service providers. Partly true, but only a small part of the problem. We know from our experience that there are well-intentioned and efficient police personnel and good police initiatives even as there are dedicated lawyers and committed service providers.

Where the two problematic responses outlined here intersect are in the statement: “The world is like this. We have to be realistic. What can be done?”

The young girl in my opening anecdote may have raised a politically incorrect (in our campaign circles) question, but her concern for the victim’s future is not misplaced. How many girls drop out of college because bus-stop stalking is unbearable? How many women retreat from the workforce because of hostile work environments and how many suffer them silently because they need the income? How many acid attack victims are sentenced to living with disability and pain? Victim care is an important dimension of justice.

Three factors influence the ability of victims to recover and rebuild their lives: to go from being victims to become survivors. We usually focus on the first: prompt action and timely justice, including appropriate sentencing. The second is the availability of well-supported and quality support services by trained service providers — including safe homes and legal, psychological and livelihood counsel. The last is most critical: our willingness to blame the assailant and see the victim-survivor of sexual and gender-based violence the way we do victims of burglary, forgery or mugging — as people to whom something bad happened, not embodiments of that incident, defined solely by it. And this will happen when we call violence, violence, and read violence for power-play rather than lust or punishment. The ultimate instrument of justice can be found in our hearts and minds, and not in the law.

Photo: najeebkhan2009