Why we have all failed Nirbhaya: Crimes against women continue despite changes to law
India Today Group Editor-in-Chief talks about Nirbhaya, who started a revolution of sorts, and how we have essentially failed her, in the February 10, 2020 edition of the India Today Magazine.
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On December 16, 2012, India was shaken by the brutal gangrape of a 29-year-old physiotherapy graduate. 'Nirbhaya' as she came to be known, was subjected to unspeakable horrors in a moving bus in South Delhi. She died in a hospital in Singapore a fortnight later. For a country seemingly inured to cases of sexual violence against women, the horrific case became a watershed. Thousands of angry Indian citizens spilled out onto the streets, demanding not just justice for Nirbhaya but safety for women in general. Seven years after that dreadful night, justice, it seems, will finally be served. Four of the six men who raped her are now on death row. But have things really changed?
The Nirbhaya case also marked a legal watershed. It led to the passing of the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act in 2019 which widened the definition of rape and made it a non-bailable offence. Jail terms in most sexual assault cases were increased, the death penalty introduced in cases where the rape resulted in the death of the victim or left her in a vegetative state. The spate of legislation, the greater awareness and the harsher penalties, we imagined, would prove to be sufficient deterrent. It did not happen. Horrific gangrapes and murders continue to make headlines in our country. To name just two of the worst—six men gangraped and murdered an eight-year-old child in Kathua in Kashmir in January 2018 and four men gangraped and murdered a 26-year-old veterinarian in Hyderabad and later burnt her body. Despite stricter laws, the number of reported cases of rape went up by 34 per cent—from 24,929 in 2012 to 39,956 in 2018. The spike could be due to a higher incidence of reporting, but does not detract from the severity of the problem. Worse, the rate of filing of charge-sheets came down from 96 per cent to 85 per cent in the same period. The rate of convictions showed marginal improvement, from 24 per cent to 27 per cent, but remains abysmal. As of September 30, 2019, over 700,000 cases were pending in the existing 704 fast-track courts across India.
Nor is resource crunch the issue. The Centre had set up the Nirbhaya Fund in 2018 to provide for the safety and security of women. But of the Rs 2,050 crore, it had allocated to various states from this corpus till November 2019, only 20 per cent has been utilised. Five states—Maharashtra, Manipur, Meghalaya, Sikkim, Tripura—and the Union Territory of Daman & Diu have not spent a single rupee. Such apathy even as violent crimes against women continue to rise is truly shocking.
India Today February 10 cover: Why We Have Failed Nirbhaya
Nirbhaya's family—particularly her parents Asha Devi and Badrinath Singh—may be said to have got justice for their daughter, but countless other victims of rape and sexual violence await judicial redress and rehabilitation. Millions of others remain susceptible to sexual violence.
Our cover story, Why We Have All Failed Nirbhaya, by Senior Editor Kaushik Deka and Associate Editor Sonali Acharjee, examines this conundrum—how crimes against women continue despite changes to the law. The Kathua incident saw the passing of the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2018, to introduce the death penalty as possible punishment for the rape of a girl under 12 years. The Andhra Pradesh Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2019, now awards the death sentence to criminals in rape cases within 21 days. Yet, more legislation is not what we need, the existing provisions are stringent enough. Like much else in India, the failure lies in implementation. An insensitive, corrupt police force and a tardy justice system have failed to deter the crime of rape.
We also need to look at the rehabilitation of rape victims and preventive aspects such as the changing social attitudes towards women. A 2018 study by two researchers found male attitudes towards women to be the most robust predictor of the extent of rapes in India. The fundamental problem, the study argued, was the deeply-entrenched misogyny in Indian society. Swachh Bharat aimed at making India open defecation-free by bringing about a change in social behaviour. Perhaps we need a similar drive to cleanse Indian minds as well.
(India Today Editor-in-Chief's note for the cover story, Why We Have All Failed Nirbhaya, for February 10, 2020)