15 Jan 2013

Rape, justice and a model for India's future

India is asking itself why it took so long to wake up to the issue of sexual violence against women: but one state is pioneering a new system to help women seek justice.

In the immediate period after the horrific attack and murder of a woman in Delhi last December, the Indian papers ran a number of stories about rape – but the articles had nothing to do with this particular incident.

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Instead, the media was absorbed in the details of a court case dealing with a rape charge against a high profile politician. It wasn’t until students and campaigners took to the streets of the capital to demand action to protect women that the media swung into gear.

The barbaric details of this incident on a Delhi bus would later shock and transfix the nation – but it is the first case of its kind to do so. Until now, the media has responded to such incidents with the shrug of a shoulder – and a three line paragraph on page 11.

Still, there a lot of people are now asking themselves why it has taken the nation so long to wake up to the issue of sexual violence in India. One writer describes it as a sort of ‘collective amnesia’ – the deliberate act of forgetting. It functions like a self-defence mechanism, she wrote, so women can get on with their lives – instead of spending all their time thinking about how vulnerable they are.

There are plenty of younger, upwardly mobile Indians who want the nation to chart a more progressive course. In a series of sometimes violent protests over the New Year, protestors called on the country’s politicians to enact stricter laws with swifter punishments.

Whether elected officials will be able – or even willing – to clamp down on violence against women is uncertain however. There are 42 men serving in national or state legislatures who have been charged with sexual offences like rape.

It is a startling fact and I think it reflects how Indian society has tended to see crimes against women. Men often blame the victim for behaving ‘provocatively’ or ‘staying out late’ – some see acts like rape as ‘minor transgressions’.

I did meet one individual who says he’s determined to change the mind-set however. He’s called Navneet Sekara, a maverick police chief in the state of Uttar Pradesh. He’s drawn on his background in computer science to design what can only been seen as a revolutionary anti-harassment helpline.

To understand what Mr Sekara is trying to do, you have to remember that women in India rarely make complaints about offensive behaviour. Many are too frightened – or prevented from doing so by their families. If they do lodge a complaint they’re often met with indifference by the police or a court system that takes years and years to act.

Here are some of the ‘1090’ scheme’s features: women are offered full confidentiality – officers begin dealing with complaints within 24 hours – all calls are recorded (Mr Sekera says it makes attending police officers accountable to the victims) and the scheme is able to deliver its own punishments – for example officers can take away the passport or driving licence of offenders.

You can see more about the Uttar Pradesh ‘Powerline’ on our television report – but it struck me that Navneet Sekera has been forced to set up what amounts to a ‘parallel justice system’ in order to deal with harassment in India. At the moment the scheme is limited to abusive phone calls but he plays to expand it to all forms of offensive behaviour in time – and there is clearly a need for it. In the first two months of operation, Mr Sekera says the centre has fielded 200,000 phone calls.

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