By Anna Chisholm
27th August 2014 . Human Rights and Conflict Resolution, Issue 3, No. 4.
Delhi, 15th August 2014, Narendra Modi addressed the nation in his first Independence Day speech as Indian Prime Minister. The ramparts of the iconic Red Fort provided a familiar setting. However, the content of Mr Modi’s speech broke from tradition. Notable was his impassioned plea for a shift in attitude on the issue of violence against women – an issue that, by his reckoning, still brings shame to India.
Indeed, violence against women has long plagued the country. Much international attention accrued after the brutal gang-rape of a 23-year-old woman in Delhi on 16th December 2012. This incident, just one in a string of rape cases, provided an outlet for national debate supporting legal and cultural reform. The response of the Indian Government was to set up the Justice Verma Committee on 23rd December 2012. This three member committee subsequently submitted its report on 23rd January 2013, recommending changes to the laws on rape, sexual harassment, trafficking, child sexual abuse, medical examination of victims and policing.
In response to the report, Parliament passed the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 2013, providing for long overdue amendments to the Indian Penal Code 1860, the main criminal code of India. It also amends the Indian Evidence Act 1872, the Code of Criminal Procedure 1973 and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act 2012.
Briefly, the 2013 Act introduced several significant amendments to the Penal Code, for example, the inclusion of rape causing death or a vegetative state, sexual intercourse by a husband upon a wife during separation, sexual intercourse by a person in authority, gang rape and punishment for repeat offenders. The 2013 Act also saw the introduction of offences such as voluntarily causing grievous hurt by the use of acid, sexual harassment, intent to disrobe, voyeurism, and stalking. Furthermore, the 2013 Act has made it an offence for public or private hospitals to refuse to treat rape victims.
While on one hand these amendments are welcome and progressive, there are still some glaring provisions which do not afford adequate protection to women. Primarily, marital rape remains legal where the woman is over the age of sixteen. Furthermore, under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958, immunity for armed forces personnel remains a very real threat. Additionally, some pertinent procedural issues require attention. For example, trials for offences under Sections 376A-D of the Penal Code are to be completed within two months from the filling of a charge sheet. However, the Delhi rape case is a prominent example of failure to meet this deadline. In this case, it took over 9 months to arrive at a verdict. It could be said that such inadequate judicial practice is tantamount to the denial of justice for victim(s).
This is not indented as an exhaustive list of amendments and identified problems. However, it is evident that despite making strides forward, current legislation can still be construed as contradictory to India’s international human rights obligations. However, it might be even more salient to observe that legal reform alone is not enough. So long as discriminatory norms remain deeply rooted in (certain) facets of Indian society, the risk of violence against women remains heightened. It is proposed that a societal shift in attitude must accompany further legal reform, a point to which Mr Modi alluded to in his speech.
“The law will take its own course, but as a society every parent has a responsibility to teach their sons the difference between right and wrong.”
In these words, Narendra Modi articulated a pressing concern. While it is important not to generalise all of Indian culture, the point should be made that social structures are undoubtedly male-centric. There has long been complaints that sons are treated with favour, while daughters are made to feel like second class citizens, burdened with the expectation of adhering to a higher standard of behaviour.It is this attitude, as Mr Modi emphasised, that needs to change.
Moreover, the recently publicised gang-rape and hanging of two teenage girls epitomises the need for improved access to household toilet facilities. This incident is far from an isolated occurrence. Indeed, it has been calculated that round 400 women could have avoided rape if there was a toilet in their home. Mr Modi appeared to be acutely aware of this issue and assured the nation that every household in India would have a toilet within the next four years. He additionally promised separate toilet facilities for girls in public schools.
The prime minister also voiced concern over the millions of ‘missing’ girls, appealing to doctors “not kill the unborn girl child for money”. There are 37 million more men than women in India. The current sex ratio is 940 girls to 1,000 boys, which is indicative of a cultural preference for males over females. As Mr Modi expressed, it is essential that Indian society, en mass, views women as “equal partners in India’s development”.
The reporting of rapes is another cause for concern. It is estimated that one rape occurs every 30 minutes in India. However, while the number of reported cases has increased significantly (by 329% in Delhi),it is submitted that this is more the result of the reconstituted list of rape offences under the Penal Code. It remains troublesome that an entrenched social stigma and cultural tolerance of violence dissuade victims from reporting attacks.
Furthermore, to some extent, it is telling that certain provisions of the Penal Code define violent crimes in terms of female modesty. This in itself may contribute to a discriminatory societal view of women. Indeed, it has been suggested by Amnesty International that “these concepts perpetuate stereotypes about women’s expected conduct and behaviour and can impede women’s access to justice”. As such, it is suggested that all such provisions be reworded to incorporate reference to physical and mental integrity.
Again, this is only a brief overview of some of the worrisome cultural trends which promulgate violence against women.
In the wake of cancelled talks with Pakistan, it is imperative that attention remains on the issue at hand. In a welcome break from convention, Pakistan had no place in Mr Modi’s speech, yet it appears that this resolve was fleeting. It is hoped that the ambitions that were made clear in Delhi are not so short-lived. As aforementioned, it is crucial that legal reform continues in order to eradicate provisions which lend themselves to the continuance of violence. It should also be observed that the law on paper gives little protection without effective support and enforcement. Indeed, it is vital that Mr Modi uses his time as Prime Minister to call further attention to the need for cultural reform. There is much work that still needs to be done.
Anna Chisholm is contactable at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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