The raging controversy over the banning of the documentary film India’s Daughter by British documentary film-maker Leslee Udwin, which focused on the 16 December 2012 gang rape in Delhi, has revived the discussion around rape in India. Yet the discussion around the government’s decision to ban the film in India, and around the world (a preposterous demand), overlooked the central issue that still waits to be addressed.
Instead of arguing about the merits of this one film, we should have been discussing why, despite changes in the law, the incidence of rape continues to grow and the conviction rate remains abysmally low — a mere 27% in 2013. Instead of being surprised and repelled by the despicable attitudes of the defence lawyers interviewed in the film, we should have asked, what is being done to change male attitudes? And we should have questioned why at every stage when sexually assaulted women turn to the criminal justice system, it continues to fall so short, from the response of the police to the way rape cases are conducted in the court.
Not only were these questions not asked but unfortunately, the unrepentant and misogynist statements of the convicted rapist Mukesh Singh in the film fuelled renewed demands for death penalty for rapists. These coincided with the 5 March 2015 tragic public lynching and death of an Assamese Muslim man accused of raping a Naga woman in Dimapur, Nagaland. Within hours of this there were calls for summary justice for rapists by some members of the ruling party and others. Once again, instead of addressing the complexities of dealing with violence against women, we reinforced the popular belief that the delivery of death (even better if public) is the best preventive medicine.
Obscured by all this noise is the ugly reality of how little is being done to set in place the infrastructure that could make a real difference to women victims of violence. So while Finance Minister Arun Jaitley grandly announced in Parliament on 28 February that an additional Rs 1,000 crore would be allocated to the Nirbhaya Fund, set up after the 16 December gang rape, he did not admit that previous allocations lie unused. In 2014, the Ministry of Women and Child Development headed by Maneka Gandhi announced that a one-stop rape crisis centre or Nirbhaya Centre would be set up in every district in India and in six metropolitan cities, a total of 660. These centres would be equipped with all the facilities that women seeking help after sexual assault need, such as a doctor, a trained nurse, a counsellor, a police official to take down the statement, a visiting lawyer and forensic support. In less than a year, that grand plan lies in shambles. Away from the gaze of the never-vigilant media, and without any reasonable explanation, the number of crisis centres has been scaled down to just 36. An allocation of Rs 244.48 crore has been cut down to Rs 18 crore.
While one can argue that merely setting up such rape centres will not alter the depressing statistics on rape in this country, there is no question that such facilities are desperately needed. They encourage women to report rape, they ensure that vital evidence is collected under medical supervision, they provide the woman with the medical aid and counselling she seeks — both legal and psychological — and they help prepare her to pursue the case. In many countries, such facilities are part of public hospitals, and even some private ones.
It should also be obvious that these centres need to be accessible. There is no point in providing facilities that are so far apart that women cannot reach them. Just one rape crisis centre, somewhere in a state, is like scattering eye drops from a mountain top in the hope that they will reach an infected eye somewhere along the way. Also, whether the centres are in separate buildings or within existing hospitals is less important than that they are needed. The argument against separate buildings, as proposed earlier by the ministry, is that they cost more and also expose the women seeking help to the public gaze. Some advocates for women’s rights have suggested that creating rape crisis centres within existing medical facilities is not just cheaper but more practical and would facilitate a greater level of anonymity.
While the details about the shape and size of rape crisis centres and their location can be debated, how can the decision to scale them down so drastically be explained? Instead of getting agitated about the image of India through films like India’s Daughter, the government needs to address the very concrete problems that sexually assaulted women face in seeking justice. The law has been strengthened, there is greater awareness, but there are gaping holes in implementation and in support structures for assaulted women. If this government is really concerned about India’s image, let it speak through actions, not through empty promises or pointless outrage about how others view India’s grim reality. A rotten reality cannot be tarnished further.
Article is editorial of Economic and Political weekly