Sunday, May 30, 2010

Defining sexual assault

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, May 30, 2010

The Other Half


The sentence in the Ruchika Girhotra case is a small step in rectifying an anomaly in the law. The draft Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill 2010 now seeks to tighten laws dealing with sexual assault…

What is important is that women are made aware of what their rights would be if the law is passed.

The enhancement of the sentence of former Haryana DGP S.P.S. Rathore, charged with molesting 14-year-old Ruchika Girhotra, from just six months to one and a half years, is a very small step in rectifying the glaring anomaly in the law that allowed him to almost get away with a serious crime. In the absence of the popular furore over what happened, and the determined efforts of the young woman's friends and family, it is possible that Rathore would have continued to hold office and escape the jail sentence awarded to him. But even as many will believe that 18 months is hardly adequate punishment for a crime that led to a young woman taking her own life, the sentencing is the beginning of an important process of change in our antiquated laws dealing with sexual assaults of all kinds.

Ruchika's is only one case. There are hundreds of such cases in India that never reach the point of conviction. And many more incidents that are never even reported. But because more such cases are coming out in the open, the demand for a change in the law has built up to the point that the government has finally taken note.

Change, finally

The draft Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill 2010 aims to tighten current laws dealing with rape and sexual assault. This has happened not because of a sudden flash of enlightenment by those who make laws but because of the sustained campaign by women's groups for well over three decades. The fact that such a law is finally on the anvil illustrates yet again how important it is that civil society groups exert pressure and provide detailed alternatives when opposing existing laws.

For, in this case, what women's groups have done is not just to point out the obvious, that the existing provisions in the Indian Penal Code (IPC) dealing with rape are antiquated (based on a 19 {+t} {+h} century law) and ineffective but have also submitted to the government detailed suggestions on how these provisions can be changed. The National Commission on Women has also provided the government with a draft law. Such interventions ensure that the discussion does not remain in the area of generalities but actually deals with the specifics.

But here is where the problems often begin. While civil society groups work on changes based on their actual experiences of dealing with cases — such as those of rape, sexual assault, child abuse etc — the bureaucrats who draft laws appear to have a different set of concerns. So some of the suggestions are incorporated but loopholes are allowed to remain that will permit offenders to slip through.

Yet, despite its apparent weaknesses, the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill 2010, also popularly referred to as Sexual Assault Bill, will herald important changes in the sections of the IPC dealing with rape. It has enlarged the definition of rape to sexual assault, thereby bringing under the aegis of the law many other forms of assault on women that so far have not been considered rape and that have allowed offenders to get away with the minimum punishment of just two years. This is a welcome change. (The entire draft is available on the Union Home Ministry's website: (Amendment)Bill2010.pdf)

It has also specified that such a crime would be treated more seriously when the offender is a police officer, a public servant who has taken advantage of his official position, a person on the management or staff of a jail or remand home, a person on the management or staff of a hospital, the relative or a person in a position of trust or authority etc. The punishment would be a minimum of 10 years extending to life. Clearly, if such a provision had been in place earlier, Rathore would never have escaped with such a light sentence.

The draft law has also included specific provisions on child abuse that should be welcome. Groups working on children's rights have been demanding a separate law dealing with this but lawyers point out that having specific provisions within the IPC helps as the police usually act on the basis of these provisions. Thus the punishment for sexual abuse of a minor (defined as under the age of 18) will now be a minimum of seven years extending to life.

Women's groups are not entirely happy with the version of the law presented by the government because they hold that it is poorly drafted, is vague in some parts and could provide offenders a window through which they could escape. Their detailed responses have been sent to the Home Ministry and one hopes that they will be taken on board seriously.

What is important at this stage is that these provisions in the law are debated and that people, and particularly women, are made aware of what their rights would be if the law is passed. In India, a major problem is the absence of accurate information on important laws. And the media does not always help as the manner in which these issues are reported leads to a misunderstanding of the law.

Skewed balance

For example, instead of looking more closely at provisions in the draft law, some newspapers have been emphasising the opinions of little known groups that insist that the law will victimise men. This is an amazing form of “balanced” reporting where you place on an equal footing the very real problem facing millions of women who have been sexually assaulted, and their rights, with small, fringe “men's rights” groups who are given equal or sometimes even more media space.

Instead, what we need to consider is why the graph of assaults against women has been steadily climbing in this country, and why the rate of conviction remains pitifully low. According to the latest figures for 2008 assembled by the National Crimes Records Bureau, there has been a five per cent increase in crimes against women — from 1,85,312 in 2007 to 1,95, 856 in 2008. These crimes include rape, molestation, kidnapping and abduction of girls, sexual harassment, trafficking (defined as “importation of girls”) and cruelty by husband and relatives. The last has the largest number of recorded cases — 81,344, followed by 40,413 of molestation, 22,939 of abduction of girls, 21,467 of rape and 12,214 of sexual harassment.

It goes without saying that a change in the law by itself will not reduce crimes. But in this instance, the important expansion of the term “rape” into the much more specific term of “sexual assault” is long overdue. The real challenge, if and when the law is tabled in Parliament, and hopefully passed, will be how well it is implemented.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Sentenced to death

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, May 16, 2010



Asserting one's independence in something as vital as marriage in many parts of India can end in death. That's the price of modernity. How can we still call ourselves a civilised society?

With Nirupama's death, the issue of honour killings has come closer to home for the middle class.

Photo: V.V. Krishnan

Needless grief: Manoj's sister Seema and mother at a press conference...

What a week we have had — full of symbols of nooses and death. On the one hand, there was the pronouncement of the death sentence on Mohammed Ajmal Amir Kasab, convicted for the terror attack on Mumbai on November 26, 2008 by a special court in Mumbai. On the other, the death of a young woman, 22-year-old Nirupama Pathak, found hanging from a fan in her parents' home in Koderma, Jharkhand. Suicide, said the parents. “Honour killing”, said her boyfriend. The parents had opposed Nirupama's desire to get married to Priyabhanshu Ranjan as she was from a higher caste. The case is unresolved and getting murkier by the day. But the symbol of death in both cases was the noose.

The demands for Kasab's hanging, with people enacting mock hangings in front of television cameras and even the public prosecutor who conducted the case holding up graphics of the noose to illustrate his demand for the death sentence, raises disturbing questions about the role of the media in encouraging irrational emotions. More than one television channel aired the views of people who demanded that Kasab be handed over to “the people”, or hung from the nearest lamppost. Only then would they be satisfied. But mob justice is no justice, even when the person concerned is a “terrorist”. Should the media be inflaming these passions or is its role to bring about some balance and perspective?

More disturbing

But Kasab apart, the far more disturbing issue is that of the alleged suicide of Nirupama Pathak and what that represents in terms of the growing incidence of honour killings. Until recently, most such instances came from rural or semi-urban areas. Many of them were located specifically in Haryana where the system of khap panchayats rules on questions of marriage and opposes the marriage of two people from the same gotra. If young people defy this tradition, they either have to run away and hide or face death. There does not seem to be any other civilised alternative.

With Nirupama's death, the issue of honour killings has come closer to home for the middle class. Here was an educated girl, a journalist, from a middle class family who agreed to her studying and working away from home. Yet, what they did not grant her was the right to choose who she could marry. Even if murder is not proved in her case, it is clear that she was under immense pressure to break her relationship with Ranjan for no other reason than that he was from a lower caste.

Dubious claim

The horrifying nature of some of the honour killings that have been recorded — and there are probably many more that go unreported — make one wonder how we can claim to be a civilised society. Statistics are difficult to collate, as deaths due to honour killings are not listed as such in the National Crime Records Bureau data. But we cannot deny that their numbers are growing. According to one survey, there are at least 100 honour killings each year in just Delhi, Haryana and UP.

How do you define honour crimes? Human Rights Watch gives the following definition: “Honour crimes are acts of violence, usually murder, committed by male family members against female family members, who are held to have brought dishonour upon the family.”

And how do you bring this “dishonour” on your family? In India, this translates into marrying into another caste, another religion or even another class. On October 26, 2009, the reported murder of the daughter of an Assistant Commissioner of Customs in Patna, who eloped with the son of a Class IV employee, was one such instance where class was an issue.

Only in one honour killing case so far, has the court come down hard on those involved. In what will be seen as a historic judgment, a Sessions Court in Karnal, Haryana, sentenced to death five people and gave life imprisonment to one for the murder of Manoj (23) and Babli (19) of Karora Village in Kaithal district. Their crime? The khap panchayatruled that as they belonged to the same gotrathey could not marry.

The common thread that runs through all these incidents is the decision of the boy and girl to choose their own partners rather than letting families decide. And that is at the root of the societal problem we face, irrespective of caste or creed or region. For, modernity is ensuring that girls and boys are getting educated, moving away from their homes, finding jobs, watching images of people of their generation making free choices. Yet, the deadly reality of their lives is that on this one issue of marriage they really have no choice. And if they defy entrenched traditions and attitudes, they are sentenced to death, no less.

Can anything be done? Even if the deeper issue of societal change cannot occur overnight, are there steps that can be taken to curb such regressive influences?

Unfortunately, instead of being discouraged, such elements are being directly and indirectly supported. For instance, Haryana's khap panchayats are now demanding an amendment in the Hindu Marriage Act 1954 so that it prohibits marriages within the same gotra. The government's response, and for that matter of most political parties, is to throw up their hands and say that in matters of caste or religion, they can do nothing. Even younger politicians, such as the Congress MP from Kurukshetra, Navin Jindal, have not taken a stand. Jindal has praised the khap panchayats and stated, “I and my family have always respected society's traditions, customs, beliefs and culture.”

In response to demands for a special law, Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram has ruled out enacting a new law to deal with honour killings, although he is open to defining the crime specifically and has come out strongly against the caste panchayats, saying they should be treated as murder accomplices. He argues that the reason “sati” invited a specific law was because it was disguised as suicide. But then so too were dowry deaths in the initial years. And can we be sure that honour killings too are not disguised as suicides? Apart from the Nirupama Pathak case, another instance reported this month was that of 22-year-old Arvind and 19-year-old Dewanti in Kushinagar, UP. The couple committed suicide by consuming poison because their families had arranged for them to marry other people. Would these young people have taken such a step if they were sure that they could make an independent choice? Did the families not abet their suicides?

The law in any case can do only so much. What has to change are attitudes and traditions. How can we talk of independence, or empowerment, if on an issue as basic as marriage, women and men are told they have no choice? And worse, that defying tradition means inviting the death penalty. How can such a situation be accepted by a civilised society? How many more young women, and men, must die before some sense prevails?

(To read the original, click on the link above)

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Twists, turns, dead-ends

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, May 2, 2010



The Sunanda episode leaves us with some hard questions, about the attitude of the media to women, about sexism and other hurdles that women face everyday at the workplace...

Sunanda Pushkar is not the first professional woman who has had to face innuendo and sexist remarks.

Photo: PTI

Hounded by the media: Sunanda Pushkar.

The IPL is finally over. Now we can get on with life, with more important issues, such as the number of hungry people in this country where some children are fed mud for dinner, or the actual number of people so poor that they have to be exceptional optimists to believe that there will be a better day tomorrow, or millions of people surviving without electricity and water as the sun's rays get ready to roast the country with the approach of a sizzling summer. Yes, there is life beyond the IPL. Indeed, there was life during the IPL that was almost forgotten.

Though the matches have ended, unfortunately the IPL saga continues to unravel and hog headlines. But when and if it finally recedes to an inside page or off television screens, perhaps most people will have forgotten the Sunanda Pushkar episode.

Wrong priorities

At least that is what she will hope although she is unlikely to forget the treatment she received at the hands of the Indian media. You can debate whether she was as culpable as Shashi Tharoor when she accepted what appears to be a special favour, but the issue that the media focused on was not the impropriety of that as much as the private life and times of one woman. Why? Because she is a woman and the media is sexist, as Tharoor suggested? Or because some people decided that a woman like that should not be seen in the company of powerful upper class men like Tharoor? Or was it a combination of class bias and misogyny? However you read it, the media's attack on Sunanda Pushkar was crass, in bad taste and lacked the basic modicum of decency. You don't kick those who can't defend themselves. These are basic principles of fair play. But all that was forgotten in the IPL scrum.

There is another dimension to this story. Sunanda Pushkar is not the first professional woman who has had to face innuendo and sexist remarks. This is something many professional women worldwide would have faced to a lesser or greater degree at some stage in their lives. Of course, there is a tendency amongst women who are successful to forget such experiences, or brush them off as occupational hazards of being a professional woman. But scratch the surface, talk to women who are still struggling to get ahead, and you will hear many similar stories. “How did she land this job?” “Who is her godfather?” “Whose favourite is she?” “Did she use her ‘womanly wiles' to get ahead?” Etc, etc, etc. If you are young and reasonably attractive, and you get a prized position within an organisation, these and other questions are almost inevitable. No one is prepared to believe that you can get a job or a promotion on your own merit. Yet, when your male counterpart gets ahead through powerful contacts, or through influence, he is envied, considered smart.

The issue goes beyond petty sexism, which is just one of the hurdles women still have to overcome to get ahead. The root problem is the absence of a level playing field, where both men and women are evaluated on the basis of their capabilities. If indeed that had been the case, surely many more women would by now have reached top positions in many professions. Yet data from around the world shows us that this is still not the case.

In her book The Equality Illusion, The Truth about Women and Men Today (Faber and Faber, 2010), Kat Banyard gives the following data: In the 50 largest publicly traded corporations in the European Union, women constitute only 11 per cent of the top executives and four per cent of CEOs and heads of boards. In Britain, 22 of the 100 top FTSE companies do not have a single woman on their boards. In the US, only 15.2 per cent of Fortune 500 board directors are women.

Banyard suggests that the problem is not just one barrier. She writes:

What we are looking at here is not a single, invisible barrier quietly lying in wait outside the boardroom or at the door of the Oval Office. We are looking at the cumulative effect of women being restricted by outdated structures and attitudes at every level in the workplace. Alice Eagly, a professor at Northwestern University, and Linda Carli, associate professor at Wellesley College, point out that the term ‘glass ceiling' fails to capture fully how women are excluded from power in the twenty-first century because it implies an absolute barrier at a specific level. They suggest ‘ labyrinth' as a more accurate metaphor for what women are faced with. Right from the start the route to the top is littered with twists, turns and dead-ends as women negotiate colleagues' stereotypes and the lack of flexible working. Women have to navigate it from the minute they step into the office, not just when they are trying to open the door to the boardroom.

Indeed, a “labyrinth” that surely includes sexist innuendo. Women have to develop an especially thick hide to ignore all this and carry on. Many fall by the way side for this and other reasons, most having to do with the fact that they are women, that they are still expected to be the principal care givers for their children, and to “sacrifice” careers for family and marriage.

Even in sectors like IT, where women have found greater opportunities to succeed, the playing field is far from level. In a recent article in The New York Times (April 18, 2010), Claire Cain Miller spoke to several women in the sector in the US who wanted to launch their own start-ups. One of them was Candice Fleming who had worked with Hewlett-Packard and a small software company. But when she wanted to raise funds for Crimson Hexagon, a company she co-founded in 2007, she was told by a venture capitalist she approached that she need not bother to have a business card because they would refer to her as “Mom”. Another invited her to spend a day on his boat and showed her a naked picture of himself on the boat. How many men go through something even remotely similar? She approached 30 venture capital firms. None responded. Finally Golden Seeds, a fund that helps women setting up firms, gave her funds. And hers is not a lone example.

Different rules

The point remains that the environment for women in the professional world is not always welcoming. In India, cronyism is now so accepted that no one thinks about it. Yet men who get ahead riding on that cronyism do not have to face the personal flak that women do. And that is where the sexism lies.

So the Sunanda Pushkar episode might well be a blip on the horizon. But it should make us ask some hard questions: about the attitude of the media towards women, about sexism and other hurdles professional women face during their careers and about what it will take to ensure equality and equity in the workplace.

(To read the original, click on the link above)