Centre Has ‘Taken Steps’ for Women’s Safety, Minister Says. Are They The Right Ones?
At an Indian Professionals Forum on Monday, IT and Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad had this to say about women’s safety: “Any problem of women’s safety is unfortunate. It is a social problem… we have to work together to address these issues,” he said, per a Times of India report. “We have taken steps and in the case of rape, we changed the law to bring in capital punishment [in cases involving minors].”
In light of a recent report that India is the most dangerous country for women (a conclusion Prasad strongly refuted at the Forum) and another recent report that highlights how unwelcome and unsafe young Indian women are in public spaces, now is a good time to examine those steps Prasad refers to.
Let’s start with the most recent move that Prasad name-checks: instituting capital punishment for the rape of girls under 12. It was a step taken after days of government silence following reports of the gang rape and murder of an 8-year-old girl in Kathua, Jammu. Heralded by many among the social media public as the right move, it sated rage and retribution without actually doing anything to make girls safer. As The Swaddle noted at the time: “Countless studies and statistics show that the death penalty is not an effective deterrent. In fact, 88% of criminologists believe that the death penalty has little overall effect on preventing people from committing a crime.” In fact, many experts believe that in the case of sexual violence, a death penalty could make rapists more prone to killing their victims. And in the case of sexual violence against children, a death penalty could make families less likely to report the crime, since child rapists are usually relatives or family friends.
Even if a death penalty for the rape of girls under 12 was an effective deterrent, as the leader of Communist Party of India (Marxist), Brinda Karat said at the time, “I am afraid this [executive order] has very little credibility because what is required is certainty of punishment.”
Certainty of punishment, whatever the punishment is, comes from a functioning judiciary system, which is decidedly lacking. Of the 1,800 fast track courts set up in 2013 for the speedy adjudication of heinous crimes against women and children, only 722 have been set up five years later.
“Glaringly, seven states and union territories that feature in the top 10 ranks for crimes against women do not have even a single fast track court for sexual assault. Assam and Odisha, No.2 and 3 on this list, have zero special courts,” reports The Print.
To be fair, these fast track courts were a Congress directive in response to the 2012 Nirbhaya case, but their implementation (or lack thereof) has continued under the current administration. Regardless of who has been in power, The Centre has consistently made splashy, but ultimately ineffectual, moves in the wake of high-profile gender violence.
Prasad would have done better to point to the Health Ministry’s School Health Education Programme, a sex education program announced in April, which will address “sexual and reproductive health, sexual abuse, good touch and bad touch, nutrition, mental health, sexually transmitted diseases, non-communicable diseases, injuries and violence and substance abuse in an age-appropriate manner.” While it will only reach students in Class 9 through 12 (arguably too late) for now, in government schools across the country, the role-playing and activity-based module is still a step towards actually preventing sexual (and gender-based) violence.
But it’s not enough. Absent from these steps taken is another principle of prevention: mobilizing men and boys as allies. The government, dominated by men, has been notably silent in the face of gender-based violence — when its members and allies aren’t busy promoting the backward ideas that feed it. While condemning and correcting the ignorant remarks of sexists (and alleged abusers) within the ranks would likely be a full-time job, it may be the most necessary. Instead, every time the government has had the opportunity to challenge the traditionalist mindset that drives gender-based violence, it has responded defensively. Taking steps is all very well, but setting an example may be what counts most.