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THE OTHER HALF

Crime and confusion

KALPANA SHARMA

AFP

Can we afford to turn our backs on such issues?

HOW would you, as an Indian woman who has been raped, respond if a senior police official told you, "Except for a few violent rape cases where brutal force is used, most other cases involve some degree of consensual sex." Horrified, appalled, amazed, incredulous? Probably all of these if you realised that this is an exact quote from a senior police officer in Mumbai, Mr. Y.P. Singh, speaking to the Times of India. Where are the statistics to prove Mr. Singh's point? How has he concluded that "most" rape cases involve a degree of consensual sex? What country, or rather planet, is he talking about?

At a time when the graph of violence against women continues to climb, it is tragic that both law enforcers, like Mr. Singh, and lawyers and some sections of the media are determined to undermine the few rights that women victims of violence have won. Predictably, rape is once again in the news not because women continue to be raped in this country but because of one high profile incident — what has come to be known as the WSF (World Social Forum) rape case.

The Times of India in Mumbai ran a story as its page one lead on January 20, 2004, with the headline "WSF reels as SA judge is held for raping delegate". The story was replete with unanswered questions. It also violated a basic norm that all respectable newspapers are supposed to follow by mentioning the name of the alleged rape victim. What is more, the headline was misleading as the alleged incident took place in a hotel in South Mumbai while the WSF was being held in a distant northern suburb of the city. Furthermore, the majority of the over 75,000 people at the venue of the WSF had not even heard of this incident, leave alone "reeled" from the news. It just happened that both the alleged rapist and the alleged victim were registered as delegates to the WSF.

The case itself was not straightforward. This should have been evident to anyone reporting on the story where the alleged victim apparently went to the room of the alleged rapist at 3.15 a.m. after spending most of the evening with him and others at a nightclub. The alleged rapist is a well-known South African judge. On being charged with rape by his fellow countrywoman, he was remanded to police custody. Subsequently, the alleged victim withdrew her complaint and the judge was released on bail. Both have returned to South Africa and no one quite knows what will happen to the case at this end. We also do not know whether we will ever really know whether the judge was framed, whether he did force himself on the woman, whether the woman had cold feet after willingly going to the judge's room? These are only some of the many unanswered questions.

That apart, this strange case has yielded a host of statements and articles that seem to suggest that in rape cases, men are the victims. The article quoting Mr. Singh, for instance, bears the headline: "Rape laws loaded against men, say police and lawyers". It quotes several leading criminal lawyers claiming that women have misused rape laws to target men and even that they have cried "rape" when they are caught in the act.

What is significant is how other "routine" rape cases are usually ignored by the very media that made such a big deal out of this one and ran numerous articles on the issue, most of them resulting in confusion in the minds of readers about the real position in law and the facts on the ground about women and rape.

The real story is that the majority of women who are raped are still afraid to report the rape. Those who do, end up being even more traumatised, particularly if they happen to be poor women. If they are lucky enough to find people who will take up their case, then perhaps they can see hope at the end of the tunnel. But even then, as we know from cases like the gang rape of Bhanwari Devi in Rajasthan, there is little hope for justice.

Women's groups and others concerned with ensuring that the law is not loaded against rape victims have fought for provisions such as the previous sexual conduct of the victim not being brought up during a rape trial. The experience with implementing the existing rape laws has also resulted in provisions that put the onus on the accused to prove his innocence. How does all this add up to the law being "loaded" against men? The record of rape cases speaks for itself. There are very few convictions compared to the number of cases.

The job of the media is to inform people about the facts, not to confuse them with statements that cannot be supported by facts. Opinions such as the ones voiced by male police officers and lawyers following the "WSF rape case" are not just misinformed but are dangerous because they will encourage men to believe that even as women shout "no" they actually mean "yes". If the police, who are supposed to implement the law and come to the aid of rape victims, actually endorse views such as those of Mr. Singh, then there is little hope for the victims of violent rape.

E-mail the writer:ksharma@thehindu.co.in

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