Sunday, June 07, 2015

When women seek help...

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, June 7, 2015

Why do governments feel compelled to ‘celebrate’ one year in office and use the occasion to boast of their ‘achievements’? Yet, when criticised, they protest that one year is too short a time to pass judgment. If that is true, then why bother to mark one year?

Since May 26, when the Modi government completed a year in office, we have been subjected to a familiar litany of ‘success’ stories by the government’s acolytes and the predictable trashing of its claims by the opposition. Obscured by the screaming matches, particularly on television, is the real story of how difficult it is to be successful in many of the areas that the government wants us to believe that it has done something.

Take the promise of making women more secure and safe in this country. All political parties had to pay heed to the demand for changes in the law that arose following the December 2012 Delhi gang rape. And every party supported the amended rape law that incorporated some of the suggestions of the excellent Justice Verma Committee report. One concrete outcome was the creation of a Rs.1,000 crores Nirbhaya Fund by the previous government.

Not be left behind, the Modi government allocated another Rs.1,000 crores to the Nirbhaya Fund. But the last allocation has still not been utilised. So, merely adding more money to a fund that is not being used will not make much difference for women.

What will make a difference is if some political heft and will is put behind the concept that led to the creation of this fund.  One concrete plan was to use it for one-stop crisis centres, to be called Nirbhaya centres. These institutions, which could be either standalone or part of an existing health facility, would provide a rape survivor with the kind of help she needs when she decides to report the crime. Instead of running from one institution to another — the police, a hospital, a lawyer etc. — she could go to one centre that would provide multiple services: medical, psychological, police, legal and forensic.  Such centres exist in many countries and have proved hugely beneficial.

In the absence of such places, imagine what happens when a woman reports a rape. First she narrates her story to the police. Then she goes to a hospital, where she is taken to the casualty section. Often she has to wait. The doctor in-charge is usually a man. She has to go over all the details again. There is no rule that a woman doctor or nurse should be present. Eventually, she sees a gynaecologist who has to collect samples that could be crucial evidence. Ideally, she should also have the services of a counselor, although in India this is rare. In addition she needs sound legal advice on how to proceed further.
All this constitutes just the first step in the long fight for justice. If rape cases fail — the rate of conviction for rape cases in 2013 stood at a paltry 27 per cent — it is precisely because all these facilities are not in place when the woman seeks help. And, even if forensic evidence is collected in a hospital, it is often not stored properly. As a result, it fails to be useful when called upon during a case. So, clearly, such one-stop centres are essential.

Yet, as we are discussing this government’s first year in office, what is its record? When it came to power last year, it promised 660 Nirbhaya centres. Despite additional allocations, the number has been whittled down to just 36 centres.  What sense does this make? Is the government doing this in phases? Is there a long-term strategy? How will it decide where to locate these few centres? No such details are available making one suspect that this is another of those plans where action does not match the rhetoric.

To make the amended law work, the government has to put in place structures that will aid those seeking justice. A stronger law will not result in a conviction if the prosecution does not make an effort to pursue the case, if the survivor does not get proper legal advice on how to proceed, if the medical and forensic evidence is not properly collected and stored, if witnesses are not protected so that they don’t change their stance at the last minute and most importantly, if the woman’s right to privacy is not respected. There are gaping holes at every step that clever defence lawyers exploit. The result is humiliation and defeat for a woman already traumatised. Every such case that is dismissed deters other women from pursuing the legal option.

The real test of intent lies in the details — not the broad-sweep catch phrases so loved by politicians, including the Prime Minister. The ‘acche din’ for Indian women are a long way off; the ‘burre din’ continue.

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