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Curbing crimes against women

It’s high time that the government of India finds effective ways to curb crimes against women which now threaten to become a major cause of political and social unrest in the country.

By Anubhav Srivastava

Febuary 01, 2013

Ensuring safety of women in India is an issue which successive governments since independence have found extremely difficult to tackle. The natures of the crimes ranging from domestic violence to acid attacks to sexual offences are too obvious to be discussed in detail here. If government statistics are taken into consideration, the rate of prevalence of crimes against women will turn out to be just a fraction of what it is in many European and North American countries. 

However for every incident that comes into limelight because the victim has shown the courage to lodge a complaint and demand justice, there are a thousand others which go unreported because the victim or her family or both have chosen to remain silent due to the fear of social ostracization. The grimness of the situation in India can be imagined from the fact that the estimated number of people affected by human trafficking in the country is anything between 2-5 crore and 80 percent of the total number of persons pushed into trafficking every year are women.  

Since the root cause of human trafficking is poverty, which itself merits a separate discussion, the scope of this essay has been restricted to the crimes, harassments and wrongdoings women face, irrespective of the social strata they belong to or the geographical region they live in. These can broadly be called “Atrocities against women” and include any unpleasant or distasteful activities happening to women, be it in schools, colleges and workplace or within the perceived safety of the four walls of their homes. These are incidents that can happen to women of any age group and whose perpetrators too can be found in any age bracket. Those responsible for these incidents can be family members, relatives, friends, acquaintances or complete strangers. 

The following are some of the approaches the government can adopt in the legal and educational sphere in order to effectively curb the menace of the violent acts against women:
1. Remove legal ambiguities and declare all non-consensual acts against women as acts of “Crime Against Women with the intention of voluntarily causing hurt”:

“The authority of any governing institution must stop at its citizen's skin”.  
               - Gloria Marie Steinem, American journalist
The above adage needs to be embedded into our national traditions and also our approach towards dealing with crimes against women. It can be inferred from the above statement that if the government, with all the power and legal recourses at its disposal, has no right to encroach upon the freedom of a citizen except for a valid reason, then any group or individual outside the regime cannot proffer any excuse or justification for causing any distress, anguish or violence by any means to any other group or individual in the country.       
In this regard, the need of the hour is that instead of the present segregation of the unwanted and criminal activities against women into separate categories of offences like eve-teasing, harassment, rape, domestic violence, acid attacks, dowry deaths, etc. the government should club all these together into a single cognizable offence – “Crime against a person with the intent of voluntarily causing hurt”. This would remove several legal ambiguities, taking advantage of which, the offenders get away and considerably lessen the trauma of the victims during the hearing of the cases in the courts.  

In the present system, particularly in cases of sexual offences, the prosecutor has to conclusively prove that the nature of the crime committed on the victim conforms to the legal definition of that particular crime. Thus it becomes an extremely excruciating experience for the victim to handle the uncomfortable questions during cross-examination by the defence lawyers. 

If the above changes are made in the law, it will make it far easier for the judges to punish the offenders and render justice to the victims. This is because it is virtually impossible that any assault on an individual, sexual or otherwise, is not preceded by an act of violence. And once the commission of the act of violence is irrefutably proved, the offender can be punished for up to a prison term of 10 years. 

Such an amendment will also send a message to the community that seemingly harmless acts like eve-teasing, sending lewd messages, physical misbehaviour and stalking are not any kind of “just for fun” activities but cognizable “crimes”. Once commission of the crime is proven in the court of law, no one can get away without imprisonment of atleast six months even for a crime like eve-teasing. As the word “crime” gets absorbed in the consciousness of the people collectively and individually for the acts cited above, they will not only refrain from committing them but also create barriers at the community level to prevent others too from committing such acts. 

(2) Adopt the practice of “Civil Order of Protection”: This legal remedy, which is a part of the legal system in the United states, seeks to restrict or prohibit contact between the perpetrator of an offensive act and the victim of it. In the United States, once a person obtains a Civil Protection Order, the offender against whom it has been issued cannot come within 1500 feet of the protected person or his/her place of residence. 

The best aspect of this system is that it is only a civil order, a sort of advisory, that puts an errant person on notice without any kind of social stigma. In India, apart from designated courts of law, the police officials of the ranks of Additional Commissioners and above should also be permitted to issue protection orders by conducting a summary hearing. Incorporating this provision will serve two important purposes:

(a) In many cases, the decision of women to remain silent or ignore minor offences like eve-teasing becomes the root cause of more heinous acts against them. Choosing to remain silent not only has an adverse psychological effect on the victimized women but it emboldens the offenders to act in a more reprehensible manner later on.  Since the system does not bring any kind of stigma to the offenders and also does not attract any criminal penalties unless the protection order is violated, women will be encouraged and emboldened to lodge complaints.    

(b) The law enforcement authorities will get more comprehensive information about the potential offenders in their respective jurisdictions. Hence they can take the due preventive measures to stop heinous crimes against women. 

While the scope for harassment of persons against whom the protection orders has been obtained by corrupt officials is considerably less since it is a civil order, the following provisions can be made a part of the law in India: 

• Immediate cancellation of weapon license and confiscation of all firearms in the possession of violators for a period of 3 years from the date of issue of protection order. 

•  Making psychological counseling mandatory in case the offenders are of young age groups.

•  Cancellation of driving license and seizure of passport if deemed necessary by the law enforce-ment officials.  

•  Radio-tagging of the offenders if they were found to be deliberately violating the protection order.   
(3) Amend legal and correctional procedures for dealing with juvenile offenders: There have been innumerable instances where juvenile offenders (those aged less than 18 years) have escaped stringent punishment even after committing heinous crimes. Letting a person off the hook just because of his age is a recipe for disaster. The person is likely to commit even more crimes, particularly against women and children who are a soft target. The following changes and procedures should be made to deal with the menace of juvenile crime: 

(a) Age should not be a factor while deciding upon the quantum of punishment to be given to any person. Instead, the bench should examine two aspects in the cases of crimes committed by minors: 

•  Whether the accused is physically capable of committing the crime he has been charged with. 

•  Whether there is any feeling of remorse and repentance in him. 

No soft approach should be shown to a minor who seems devoid of regret and sorrow for indulging in criminal activities. And once the guilt has been proved beyond doubt, then apart from death penalty and life imprisonment, all other penal provisions should be made applicable in the case of persons below 18 years of age. Committing a crime may give the feeling of thrill to the youngsters but once they realize that they might have to spend as many as 7-10 years in prison where there will be absolutely no scope for going to picnics, parties and movie shows, many of them will be inclined to mend their ways. When punishments are harsh, the youngsters, particularly from the low income groups, will resist any attempts of being pushed into criminal activities by other hardened criminals around them and will also be motivated to report any such attempts to the law enforcement agencies.    

(b) One of the legal remedies the government can consider in the case of minors committing heinous crimes is treating their acts as civil offences so that they are spared the social stigma and continue to remain a part of the mainstream social fabric. However, at the same time, it should open residential schools where they will stay confined without any exposure to the outer world till the time they complete their education up to the level of graduation. Taking the example of a juvenile offender aged 13 years, who has been handed over a punishment of 10 years imprisonment owing to the seriousness of the crime committed, here are the three ways in which such a residential school will benefit him: 

• He will be prevented from committing any more crimes. 

• He will be able to optimally utilize his 8-12 formative years both for introspection into his past misdeeds and planning & building a better future for himself.    

• Since he will be a graduate before being released from confinement, he will be able to find alternative and more honourable means of livelihood.   

The government can involve corporate sector into building and running these schools where these corporate entities can train these youngsters on their organization specific skill-set. A software company can impart IT knowledge to these young minds while a BPO company can train them for a job at the call centres. Once these people complete their graduation, they can be released from captivity and get absorbed in corporate jobs. Further, all inmates aged 14 years and above must be made to work atleast 4 hours every day so that they can repay a part of the expenses the government is incurring on them and gain the confidence that they can play a positive role in the society.   
(4) Make elementary & secondary schools the bedrock of the mission of women safety;  women; teach human psychology in schools:

“The philosophy of the classroom in one generation will be the philosophy of the government in the next.” 
                                             – Abraham Lincoln 

Indeed, one of the biggest failures of a large number of our educational institutions has been their inability to churn out sensitized and responsible citizens. A school is usually the first place where a child ventures out of the embrace of his family and begins his interaction with the society. If the right traits can be inculcated in a child at this stage, then a large part of the battle to ensure safety of women will be won. The following are the suggestions that can be put into practice: 
(a) Making study of human psychology a compulsory part of the school curriculum: Many of the crimes against women are committed by people with psychological abnormalities. There can be many familial and social factors ranging from poverty, a disturbed family atmosphere, exposure to obscene & violent multimedia content, fear of the neighbourhood bully that can have an adverse effect on a person’s behavior. Since it is virtually impossible to completely isolate a child from the negative influences prevailing around him, the way out is to make the study of human psychology a compulsory part of the school curriculum. This will help him have a better understanding and control over his or her though process. 
In India, going to a psychologist is usually considered a taboo while in countries like the United States, even middle aged and old persons, who have tackled and came up trumps against adverse situations several times in life, take psychological counseling as and when needed. Hence a child or a teenager who suffers from any psychological issues in India remains too shy to discuss it and is left to find his own ways of dealing and overcoming it with the limited understanding and knowledge he has. This isolation means that there will always be a great risk of people suffering from minor psychological issues in their formative years becoming dreadful psychopath criminals later in life. Hence if human psychology is made a part of the school curriculum itself, it will give them an opportunity to discuss any issues they may be having in their classrooms with their teachers and fellow students. The teachers too will become aware of the children who warrant special monitoring and care.     
(b) Devising innovative, non-physical, punish-ments for errant student teenaged students, deliberately indulging in any kind of misbehavior with women within or outside school campus, like reduction of up to 15 percent of the maximum marks from their board exam scores. 
Conclusion: It’s high time that the government finds effective ways to curb crimes against women which now threaten to become a major cause of political and social unrest in the country. As American author Lewis F Korns succinctly put it: “Crime is as much a condition as an intention”. India must get both of these right to be at peace.   

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