Stop shooting the messenger

Instead of rejecting the Thomson Reuters Foundation report on women’s safety, the government should take necessary steps to improve their sense of security

DS Saksena | July 16, 2018


#Women Safety   #Women   #Crime Against Women   #Crime   #Safety   #Nirbhaya Fund  
(Photo: Arun Kumar)
(Photo: Arun Kumar)

The recent survey commissioned by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, which had ranked India as the most dangerous place on earth for women, has created a serious controversy in India with the government “rejecting” the report, while opposition parties have latched on the report to prove a serious erosion of law and order under the current dispensation. There have been a rash of articles echoing the government view, viz., the survey suffers from serious infirmities: it was not representative enough and the names of the respondents have not been revealed. Another objection was that war-torn countries like Syria and Iraq and countries like Pakistan were far more dangerous for women. One newspaper columnist went to the extent of comparing the rate of rapes reported per lakh population to prove that India was far better than most western countries.

It becomes difficult to remain objective in such a charged atmosphere, but certain facts need to be considered to have an informed discussion on this topic. Thomson Reuters Foundation, which commissioned the survey in question, is a respected non-profit organisation, established in 1983 by Thomson Reuters, the world’s largest news provider. Between March and May 2018, the Foundation conducted a global perception poll of 548 ‘experts’ to find out the most dangerous countries for women. The parameters on which respondents were polled were: access of women to healthcare, discrimination against women, repressive cultural traditions, sexual violence against women, non-sexual violence against women and human trafficking. This poll declared India as the most unsafe country for women. A similar poll, conducted in 2011, had placed India at fourth place, behind Afghanistan, Congo and Pakistan.

It may be easy to dismiss the conclusions drawn by the Thomson Reuters Foundation poll as a subjective finding not based on quantifiable facts because it was only a “perception poll”, but it may be better for responsible elements in society to introspect and find out the reason for such a poor perception of Indian society. One could have presumed that perception about India in foreign countries would have improved given the humongous amount spent on publicity by the government and the visibility of our PM in different foreign countries. It would appear that there is a serious problem with women’s security (at least in perception) which cannot be remedied with publicity alone.

We should remember that women’s safety has been under intense scrutiny internationally after the Nirbhaya case (2012). The brazenness of the crime, the way the government responded to the protests, the way the police treated the victims and the slow pace at which the case travelled through the courts was an object lesson in how such a case should not have been handled. On its part, the government did not talk with the protestors but let loose riot police with water cannons on them, that too in the bitter December cold. It also emerged that the police had failed to sieze the bus used in the crime, even when it was running without proper authorisation and its occupants had robbed a passerby just before the rape. The behaviour of the police with the victims also left much to be desired. The final verdict in the Nirbhaya case was delivered after four and a half years, underlining judicial delays even in sensitive cases.

Unfortunately, little has improved after the Nirbhaya case. The Nirbhaya Fund, created to ensure the dignity and safety of women, towards which the government has allocated Rs 1,000 crore per year since 2013, has remained largely unspent. On the other hand, cases of sexual harassment of women keep on rising with little monetary and other assistance being released by the government to the victims. In a recent case, an MLA from UP raped a woman and had her father killed when the family refused to withdraw the case against the MLA. Further, the local police was hand in glove with the perpetrator of the crime; a number of policemen have been arrested along with the MLA.

A new dimension has been added to sex crimes; most of such crimes are now recorded and released by the perpetrators themselves to shame the victims and thumb their nose at the police and judiciary who appear ill prepared to book the culprits. Cases take years to come to trial and the rate of conviction is abysmal. Many victims of sexual violence give up on their cases because the wheels of justice grind too slowly and because the culprits keep on terrorising them. No woman appears to be immune from rape; two-month-old babies and 70-year-old grandmothers frequently figure amongst rape victims.

Contrary to what we would like to think about ourselves, Indian society, particularly North Indian society, discriminates against women. The culture (or lack of it) in many states condones kangaroo courts, honour killings, female mutilation, child marriages and forced marriages. Add to it the poor state of healthcare, poor law and order situation, all of which affect women more because of their low social status as also the hundreds of children falling into the clutches of human traffickers every day with little effort being made to trace them. In such circumstances, the rank awarded to us by Thomson Reuters Foundation should not come as a surprise.

Much has changed since the infamous Mathura rape case of 1972, in which two policemen who raped a 13-year-old tribal girl called Mathura inside a police station were let off by the supreme court (in 1979) not for lack of evidence of the rape but because the supreme court found that the girl was of “immoral character.” Undeniably, laws have been made more progressive, we see much greater participation of women in public life, but at the same time instances of sexual harassment of women are increasing, probably because women are no longer entirely homebound and reporting of sex crimes has increased due to increased awareness.

However, the basic reason for increasing violence against women, viz., the inability of our patriarchal society to handle the challenge posed to male domination by independent women, has not been addressed. For example, in the badlands of western UP, Punjab and Haryana, a daughter or sister who does not marry according to accepted norms can become a target for honour killing. Similarly, a woman who spurns the advances of a self-styled suitor runs the risk of harassment and worse.

It is probably more important to change societal norms which frown on interaction between the sexes and promote all kinds of taboos. As a first step, moral education and sex education have to be made compulsory in all schools. In the short run, the police and judiciary need to be sensitised towards women’s issues so that no woman would be afraid to approach the police or the courts. This would be more effective than a plethora of women-centric laws enacted which are rarely implemented in letter and spirit.

Opinions remain divided on the Thomson Reuters report; when the report came up for discussion in our WhatsApp group of retired civil servants, diametrically opposite opinions emerged. While some toed the government line, many like the former head of a central armed police force, pointed out the warped misogynistic mentality of North Indian males. On the basis of the experience of his two daughters, the former police officer was of the opinion that women felt safer even in Iraq and Pakistan rather than in Delhi and adjoining places. Based on the experience of his daughter, a former high-ranking intelligence officer echoed these views.

The bottom line is that much needs to be done for ensuring the safety of women in our country. Let us not quibble over ranks; “rejecting” the report – which was never sent for our approval – is tantamount to shooting the bearer of bad news. The government would have been better advised to review the issue of women’s safety and take necessary steps for improvement.

Saksena, an IRS officer of 1979 batch, retired as principal chief commissioner of income-tax, Mumbai.

(The article appears in the July 31, 2018 issue)

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