India needs a positive legal bias in favour of women, along with their adequate political participation, to secure and empower them
Despite robust achievements in the field of women empowerment over the last two decades, crime and discrimination against women are showing no signs of abatement. According to NCRB's report, between 2016 and 2021, a rise of 26.35 per cent had been observed in crimes against women. Though Uttar Pradesh tops with 56,000 cases, followed by Rajasthan (40,738 cases) and Maharashtra (39,068 cases), increase in crimes like rape, domestic violence, kidnapping, sexual harassment and illegal trafficking is seen in all states. The pandemic has also been responsible for exacerbating gender-based crimes, as mobility restrictions have forced women to live with perpetrators — isolated from social contact and support networks. After the heart-rending case of Nirbhaya in 2012, the spine-chilling story of Shraddha, reported last month, infuriated society at large — posing serious questions about safety and security of defenseless young women in the country.
Gender-based crimes have serious and irreversible consequences for social and economic advancement of women in a male-dominated society. Physical and psychological impacts of crimes, in the long run, demoralize women from living a normal life with dignity. Women have an irreplaceable role as natural caretakers of family and, as such, the quality of future generations depends on the wellbeing of women. Even though we keep failing in ensuring complete equality in terms of education and employment between men and women, we can at least make sure that physical security — the basic human right — is not denied to women.
Stringent punishments for crimes against women, of course, work as a deterrent. But what is more important is the certainty of conviction rather than stringency, so that the deterrent part of the law operates effectively through its punitive aspect. According to an MHA report, in 2021, only 29 per cent of prosecutions culminated in convictions, an improvement from 19 per cent in 2016. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs has observed a serious mismatch between the measures adopted and their implementation. It noticed that 257 police stations do not have vehicles and 638 have no telephones. The committee recommended, inter alia, strengthening of the mechanism with SOPs on registration of FIRs and training of police personnel. No doubt, there are effective laws like the IPC; Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, 2013; Domestic Violence Act, 2005; Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act, 1986; Immoral Traffic Prevention Act, 1956 etc. However, procrastinated investigations and weak prosecutions continue to undo the spirit of law. While resource crunch plagues the police machinery, the blame also goes partly on our criminal justice system.
Like in most of the countries, in India, too, 'presumption of innocence' goes in favour of the accused — one is 'innocent until proven guilty'. Though the burden of proof in rape cases (regarding consent) is cast on the accused as per Section 114A of the Indian Evidence Act (through a 1983 amendment after Mathura rape case), the section doesn't cast the same liability on the accused in other serious crimes against women. On the contrary, an Act like the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Act, 2019, treats an accused as 'guilty until proven innocent'. Under UAPA, the accused can be detained for up to six months, with police remand up to 30 days. The deterrent part of the law is so effective that one is forced to refrain from any activities even distantly connected with terrorism. Perhaps Indian jurisprudence needs enrichment with a positive bias in favour of women, as they are no less a special class of citizen in terms of social and economic backwardness, and are the most exploited class cutting across social and cultural divisions. The burden of proof and presumption of innocence in offences against women need to be weighed against the accused while, of course, ensuring a fair trial as per law. Such a position of law will work as a strong deterrent against the perpetrators and also help in fast-tracking trials.
Stringent laws mean absence of lenience in serving the term of the sentence. But, in most cases, the convicts seem to regularly enjoy parole for days, walk out of jail, and come back to society without repentance or improvement. Worse is that even the convicts undergoing life sentences for murder or rape charges are granted pardon and set free in some cases, making criminal justice too lenient if not a farce. Birth, death, marriage, etc. are some occasions for granting of regular parole after a minimum one year of term in the prison. The Prisons (Furlough and Parole) Rules,1959, are meant for reforming the convicts through continuity with family and society. But in reality, parole has become a convenient medium to connect back with the crime world on and off. The collusion between jail authorities and high-profile convicts is no more a secret. Secondly, convicts from dominant classes with political connections enjoy parole more often though they're convicted for the worst gender crimes. Each state in India has its own parole rules, and political factors seldom fail to influence the outcome. There are 65 countries including Bulgaria, England, Wales, Estonia, Kenya, Sweden, Turkey, Ukraine, and the US where 'life without parole' is in practice while in others like Vietnam, amnesty is granted only after 20-30 years of prison term. Parole has been a subject of debate in the entire world, and India might as well review the system — at least with regard to crimes against women.
Legal empowerment and social mobility go hand in hand. It is observed that in states with higher social mobility (the southern and eastern states), crime rates against women are lower. Conformist social values defeat the purpose of laws. Widows, divorcees, and single women continue to be victims of ostracization by society, not to mention honour killings. Female foeticides have led to terrible decline in our sex ratio today. Objectification of women, nudity, vulgarity and foul language are sold as entertainment on OTT forums. The overall social environment is still hostile to the cause of women liberation, let alone empowerment. India is going through a transition phase where modern social values are confronting the traditional narratives. Live-in relationships, single parenting, and LGBT rights are some examples. Law-enforcing agencies often find it difficult to deliver due to lack of cooperation from society. We need to strive for a more tolerant society which would be a precursor for social empowerment. We may start by sensitizing young people in schools and colleges towards tolerance and gender equality.
A proper ecosystem for protection and advancement of women is important, for it helps prevent crimes against women. While strengthening the law enforcing machinery with more resources is necessary, political and economic empowerment of women is also equally important. 'Womanomics' in Japan is a shining example. 'The more the merrier', they say. But the 'glass ceiling' continues to deprive women of opportunities to grow. India ranks 148th in the world in terms of representation of women in positions of power. Even as less than 35 per cent women got registered in employment exchanges, less than 15 percent are employed in government sectors. The story is not much different in politics, since only 11 per cent of MPs are women, against the global average of 20. The Women's Reservation Bill, which had crashed years ago in the Parliament, perhaps needs a reconsideration.
The writer is a former Addl. Chief Secretary of Chhattisgarh. Views expressed are personal