A Samajwadi Party activist (center in pink) is held by police personnel as she protests against the recent Unnao rape case during a demonstration at Vishan Sabha, the seat of the legislature of Uttar Pradesh state, in Lucknow on December 7, 2019. Photo: STR / AFP

On December 5, a 23-year-old rape survivor was thrashed, beaten, stabbed and then set ablaze by five men in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh. Two of the assailants were also accused of having raped her.

The incident happened while she was on her way to meet a lawyer. Witnesses say that after the attack she screamed and ran for a while, until a villager doused the flames. She was left in highly critical condition with 90% burns, and after a public outcry she was airlifted to Delhi for treatment. She passed away at midnight a day later.

This happened in Unnao, a district of Uttar Pradesh that has been notorious ever since its elected representative in the state assembly, Kuldeep Singh Sengar, was accused of repeatedly raping a minor girl. Sengar was found guilty by a court on Monday.

Clearly, these incidents reveal the dire state of women’s safety in India today. According to recent government data, 32,500 cases of rape were registered with the police in 2017, and almost 90 take place per day. The National Crime Records Bureau on October 21 this year released its report for the year 2017, which stated that 359,849 cases of crime against women were reported in the country. Uttar Pradesh topped the list with 56,011 cases.

A similar case was reported in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad. A veterinarian was abducted while she was on her way home, raped by several men and then set on fire. Her charred remains were recovered a day later. The police, who initially refused to register her sister’s complaint, allegedly picked up four men, forced illegal custodial confessions out of them, and killed them at 3am. The police claimed that the men had tried to escape in transit and were shot.

These incidents throw light on how India’s justice system has failed women. The Sengar case shows how power and patriarchy dominate any discourse on women today.

The horrific rape and death of a 23-year-old woman in Delhi in 2012 led to a number of changes in India’s colonial-era laws around violence against women. Amended laws now criminalize sexual offenses such as acid attacks, voyeurism and stalking, and also provide a 20-year sentence for rape and the death penalty in extreme rape cases. A committee was set up headed by former a chief justice of India, J S Verma. The committee’s report suggested failures on the part of the government and the police as a cause of the rise in crimes against women. A special fund was set up to tackle these special crimes, but remains largely unused.

But have things changed since then? Laws were implemented but incidents of sexual assaults continue to rise.

In Parliament, a debate on laws to protect women on December 5 barely saw any members of Parliament attending and debating the issue. This shows the systemic lack of interest among lawmakers to address the issue.

In fact, the two rape cases in Unnao depict a complete and frustrating failure of the Indian justice-delivery system at several levels. The police are largely patriarchal and misogynist and rarely agree to register cases. If cases are registered, police lack the training and the forensic equipment to investigate them. As the trial court adjudicating the Unnao rape case against Sengar noted, the Central Bureau of Investigation repeatedly called the victim for statements, when it could have easily gone to her instead. As the court noted, the nation’s premier federal investigation agency failed to appreciate her trauma.

But Sengar’s conviction is a rare victory for women, if it can be called one at all. Nothing can compensate traumatized women like her.

Historically, we have witnessed how women have been blamed and questioned about their choices – what they wear, whom they love and how they live. This is an inverted discourse, where the victim is shamed and blamed rather than the perpetrator. This is hard-coded into India’s social jurisprudence and creates a structurally conducive system to assault women. The focus remains on how women should change rather than the men.

The response from the state after every incident is confusing, if not appalling. The federal government launched a mobile-phone application after the Delhi gang-rape of 2012. But it caters to a minuscule and privileged section of women while many victims have no access to a mobile phone, let alone an app.

What women need are systemic and structural changes that address issues of patriarchy that lead to sexual violence. As the Justice Verma committee recognized, issues of harassment and assault are all about men exercising power. Unless we raise questions about power through patriarchy, women’s bodies and minds will continue to be subjected to all kinds of rapacious assaults.

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