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Madonna and child



Lawyer-activist Kirti Singh in New Delhi. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt.

WHAT AILS Delhi's men? Ask any college girl or young woman regularly commuting in the Capital, and she will describe them as the pits among perverts. Finding a decent man who can keep his distance from the women passengers on a reasonably empty bus, who can keep his hands to himself and his mouth from spewing lewd remarks is like looking for a peach orchard in the desert - and when you come across one, just as refreshing. That's why activities as innocuous as getting into your car in a parking lot or walking home from college in broad daylight are enough to risk being assaulted. But this phenomenon is not limited to Delhi. Across India and indeed South Asia, crimes like rape are committed less due to lust and more as an assertion of male dominance, as acts of revenge or of teaching a woman her "place".

As for the laws, they are woefully inadequate, says advocate Kirti Singh, President of the Janwadi Mahila Samiti. The Supreme Court and High Court lawyer has penned the chapter on "Violence Against Women and the Indian Law" in Sage Publications' "Violence, Law and Women's Rights in South Asia" edited by Savitri Goonasekere, which focuses on India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. "Basically our penal code is based on laws that were introduced in the 19th Century," says Kirti, adding that the changes introduced in 1983 in the rape and dowry laws, and the Sati Prevention Act are not enough, particularly in tackling cases of sexual assault including rape and domestic violence.

She cites the definition of rape, which is penile insertion, whereas women and young children are assaulted with a horrifying array of objects and methods, so the criminal gets away with a lenient sentence under Section 354 IPC - sexual assault with intent to outrage the modesty of a woman. "We need laws that are child-friendly and women-friendly," says Kirti.

The legal system's callousness seems to support the accused instead of the victim, though it all stems from the concept that a person is innocent until proven guilty. There is no provision even for psychological counselling as part of the legal procedures.

"In the court we place the child and the rapist in the same room," says Kirti. "So she cannot answer." This arrangement is to allow the accused to hear what he is being accused of, she explains, "But if you silence the child, what is the use?" Even suggestions of placing a screen between the two are not heeded.

As for implementing the laws against dowry, we need supporting changes, like equal inheritance for daughters, she points out. Judges too need to be sensitive. Take the Roop Kanwar Sati case. "Everybody was exonerated. The case took so long that there was ample time for witnesses to be made hostile or forget. In some cases judges don't have any sympathy for the woman's suffering. They treat it like any other commercial case, so they delay it. Like in a maintenance or child support case, it takes the court two years to decide. Meantime, she starves." This, despite a 2002 amendment that makes it mandatory to decide such cases in two months.

A report of the Law Commission of India has asked for broadening of the laws dealing with violence against women, which while not completely satisfactory to women's groups, does address some important issues, says Kirti. In this sad scenario, it cannot be called light at the end of the tunnel, but a hope, perhaps, that someone with a flint will light a torch.

ANJANA RAJAN

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