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Break the silence

Thursday, June 28, 2018

As a new study concludes that India is the most unsafe place for women globally, Tanmaya Vyas underlines the need for more women to speak up

Recently, former Miss Universe and actress Sushmita Sen was quoted saying that during a public function she was a guest at, a boy, all of 15, tried to grope her—a revelation that makes us sit up and think that if women with bodyguards are under threat, what about the women leading normal lives?

According to the report released by Thomson Reuters Foundation based on survey of 550 experts on women’s issues, earlier this week, India is declared to be the most unsafe place for women in the world, leaving even the war-stricken Syria and Afghanistan behind. Though the report encapsulates many domains like healthcare, discrimination, non-sexual violence; sexual violence is a problem that hounds India.

Six years after the cacodemonic attack, rape and murder of Nirbhaya ‘Jyoti’ Singh, the country was shaken by the Kathua and Uttar Pradesh rape cases. These are just cases that made it to the media. There are millions of cases that go unreported.

“Most of the cases we handle are of molestation on buses and trains,” says Dr Saba Jiwani, Clinical Psychologist. “Despite some of them being one-off cases, the degree of fear is so high that women come for counselling. However, even this one incident can scar someone for a long time and usually takes 7-10 sessions to normalise the thinking.”

Women are not safe even in their homes. Marital rape is an elephant in the room that Indians refuse to accept. A ‘NO’ from the wife is inconsequential and absolutely unacceptable in society. The sordid state of laws against marital rape doesn’t help the situation either. The law says forceful sex with the wife can only be considered to be a crime if the bride is below 18, which is contradictory as it is illegal to marry before the age of 18. The limit initially was just 15 and the law was amended in October 2017.

Women and girls often do not report their abuse for fear of being slut-shamed and stigmatised. And when they do, survivors of sexual abuse seem to face hurdles in accessing justice. They are often forced to retract their complaints and suffer humiliation at the hands of the police and doctors who subject them to derogatory tests such as the ‘virginity two-finger test’.

Dr. Nayreen Daruwalla, Program Director, Prevention of Violence against Women & Children, of SNEHA, an NGO, says, “After Nirbhaya, the criminal law was amended in 2013, a major breakthrough in the law as the definition of rape was expanded,” she said. “Leading to efficient and expeditious filing of cases with the police, however, the investigation becomes problematic. The statement of the survivors are not recorded appropriately. In our experience women do not come immediately after the rape or sexual assault, therefore,the emphasis of  police and even the court on medical examination stands of no use. Women who refuse to undergo medical examination face a lot of aggressive questioning in the trial. The law has strictly laid down that in cases of rape and sexual violence, the past history of the survivor is irrelevant, but in the police station and court trial this is questioned repeatedly, weakening the proceedings and eventually making conviction complicated.”

Continues Nayreen, “Annually about 15 adult cases and  25 cases of young girls below 18 years get registered in SNEHA. This happens with women and girls across all segments. Women from higher strata of the society do not easily disclose the problem and ask for legal assistance. They do visit SNEHA for counselling but are not interested in filing of cases. With the low socio-economic groups that SNEHA primarily works with, there is a factor of vulnerability because of their living conditions, issues of survival and exploitation.”

The amount of awareness and sensitizing through social media, regular workshops by many NGOs and through schooling are doing their bit, but is still inadequate. The disgusting act and fear to speak up co-exist, again in all segments of society.  The #MeToo movement, popularised due to actresses speaking against misconduct of famous American producer Harvey Weinstein, spread like wildfire in Hollywood. This movement had a late but certain effect on the Pakistan entertainment industry too; however, Bollywood still shies away from speaking up. Indian women, otherwise took up the movement on social media and registered their presence.

“These incidents  scar the victims forever. Especially teenaged girls, as they develop irrational feelings and thoughts like all men are the same,” adds Dr Jiwani. “We try our best through our cognitive sessions, to change the thought process. There are women who are submissive and believe this happens to every girl, then there girls who have a vengeful reaction. We approach them with extreme sensitivity and understanding.”

If India has to improve on its dismal ranking, one of the first things needed is an environment that is conducive for women to speak up and take legal recourse.

Short takes

  • India is  the most unsafe place for women in the world according to a report by Thompson Reuters
  • Indian laws don’t even recognise marital rape if the bride is over 18 years of age
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