For years India has grappled with the tag of being the ‘most dangerous country for women‘. Successive governments introduced measures, but there is increasing evidence that they don’t work – and are counter-productive. Indeed, in key Indian states, cases of sexual violence are on the rise.
The Constitution of India mandates that as a federal union of states, law and order issues remain primarily with state governments, unless there are overarching issues such as terrorism. This results in many states trying different methods to tackle growing violence against women, and creating a range of other problems rather than solutions.
States like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra are the top states for registered rapes and sexual assaults, according to data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), a federal body that collates statistics across states. These state governments are introducing new measures to increase women’s safety, but experts say their moves are not addressing root causes and systemic failures in India’s creaking criminal justice system.
As many as 38,947 rapes were reported in 2016, which was a rise of 12% from 2015. The number of cases reported under “sexual assault, harassment and molestation”, was 84,746 nationally. This is the second-most common crime against women after “domestic violence” cases.
When Uttar Pradesh chief minister Ajay Singh Bisht, (Yogi Adityanath) came to power in 2017, he decided to tackle the problem of women’s safety by creating the controversial ‘anti-Romeo squad’, with police roaming in civil dress to surveil public spaces to keep a check on street harassers (also known as “roadside Romeos”). The squad was eventually disbanded. But following a spate of rapes of minors, Bisht directed the police to revive the squad with the new power to issue a warning ‘red card’ to ‘suspected harassers’. If a person is caught twice doing a similar act, he will face criminal proceedings.
The squad had earlier drawn flak after reports surfaced about them targeting and publicly shaming young men, giving moral advice to couples, while some were made to do sit-ups or had their heads shaved in public.
Vaibhav Krishna, a Senior Superintendent of Police in Noida, Uttar Pradesh, told Asia Times that police officers for 23 anti-Romeo squads were receiving gender sensitization and training programs to help them handle cases better.
The squad’s further empowerment has raised concerns. Reports of the squad “moral policing” couples and a subsequent increase in sexual violence cases indicated that the measure was not working, according to Poonam Kaushik, a women’s rights activist and general secretary of Pragatisheel Mahila Sangathan.
In the neighboring state of Rajasthan, crimes against women under all sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) jumped by around 40% and rape cases rose by 30% in the first five months of this year compared to the same period last year. This happened despite the government setting up its own version of the anti-Romeo squad in 2018 with policewomen on two-wheelers.
“In Rajasthan, the government has not set up enough women’s help desks or One-Stop Crisis Centers [to assist rape victims]. Instead, they are trying to create these mechanisms [anti-Romeo squad] that are working against women being in public spaces due to moral policing,” said women’s rights activist Kavita Srivastava, who played a key role in the framing of the Vishakha guidelines to address sexual harassment at workplaces.
Now the Rajasthan government plans to set up special investigation units for crimes against women.
Delhi, meanwhile, had at least five rapes reported every day last year, according to NCRB data. So, the state government wants to boost safety by bringing more women into public spaces through free metro and bus rides, and installing 300,000 CCTV cameras. The Delhi Police, which reports to the Home Ministry, also launched a motorcycle-fleet of female cops to patrol the streets called Raftar.
But it is hard to spot this patrol squad on the road, according to Jaya Velankar, director of Jagori, a women’s organization that works to make city spaces safer. She also pointed out that unless roads are safe, free public transport won’t work.
Data from Delhi Police shows that sexual violence against women has only marginally decreased in recent times. In the first six months of 2019, reported cases of rape (IPC 376) were 973, down from 1,005 cases in the same period in 2018, while cases of assault on women with intent to outrage her modesty (IPC 354) decreased by 172 and insults to the modesty of women (IPC 509) decreased by 101.
Stepping up surveillance
Madhya Pradesh was the first state to propose the death penalty for men who rape girls under the age of 12, back in 2017. But violence against women has not gone down. Rape of minor girls in the state made headlines throughout June this year. Now the government has taken an initiative to introduce GPS tracking devices and emergency “panic buttons” in passenger vehicles such as buses and taxis.
Maharashtra assigned a 2.5-billion-rupee (US$36 million) budget for women’s safety initiatives. But sexual violence cases have risen despite this. But a survey by non-government groups Akshara and Safetipin found that 44% of areas in Mumbai, the state capital, were unsafe. It said women were only safe to walk on 22% of Mumbai’s streets.
This year the Maharashtra government finally proposed safety measures such as setting up SOS hotspots, tracking apps and installing more CCTV cameras.
However, feminists are not convinced that surveillance leads to greater safety for women or a loss of autonomy.
The rising number of crimes has put state lawmakers in a difficult position and they have criticized the police, who then discourage women from filing cases, Velankar claimed. But a higher number of reported cases also meant that more women were coming out to report violence and governments now had greater responsibility to assure they get justice, she said.
Funds not used, impunity
The implementation of a major national scheme to increase women’s safety is also not faring well. Recent reports revealed that between 2015 and 2018, states and union territories used less than 20% of the 8.5-billion-rupee ($124 million) budget allocated to them under the Nirbhaya Fund, which supports schemes for women’s safety. The fund was set up in the aftermath of a brutal gang-rape of a paramedical student in New Delhi in December 2012. Delhi, which has the highest rate of crime against women, fared the worst by using only 0.84% of the 350 million rupees it received.
“The Nirbhaya Fund is used as per proposals from different departments of the central and state governments. It will not be implemented if there is no will to do so,” a senior federal official of the Ministry of Women and Child Development told Asia Times on the condition of anonymity.
Experts say government initiatives and implementation of laws won’t create change if a culture of impunity has made the criminal justice system weak. Kaushik noted that some of the worst accusations against the police stem from recent rape cases of minors in Unnao and Kathua, where they are alleged to have bowed to pressure from people of influence to bury cases and evidence.
The Unnao rape victim, who claimed she was a minor at the time of the incident, tried to self-immolate last year due to the police not registering her complaint against a BJP lawmaker. In the Kathua case verdict, four police officers were convicted among the six accused in connection to rape and murder of an eight-year-old Kashmiri girl.
Another major hurdle that stops victims of sexual violence from getting justice is the low conviction rate in India, which is a mere 25.5% for rape and just under 22% for sexual assault and harassment, according to NCRB data.