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Violence against women – does India say 'no'?

By Sukrit Sabhlok - posted Monday, 7 January 2013

The past few weeks have been tumultuous for the Indian Government. Large public demonstrations have rocked the capital New Delhi, with protestors demanding the authorities do something about the recurring violence against women.

The public's rage was inspired by the tragic story of a 23 year old student who last month was brutally gang raped by a group of men with an iron bar, and subsequently died from her injuries.

In the past, Indian politicians have been known to downplay rape and put some of the blame on women for not dressing modestly enough, or for going out late at night.


In addition, more than a fifth of federal parliamentarians face criminal charges. Of these, around 40 face charges for serious crimes like murder or rape.

That there is a problem festering deep within India's political class is not in doubt. It cannot be said that women and young girls are 'safe' or 'respected' to the same extent that they are in Western nations such as Australia (not that we are perfect, of course).

There are a few reasons for this. First, there's the depressing reality of poverty, segregation among castes and accompanying lack of education about civic rights in a democracy. Many simply aren't confident enough to speak out against perpetrators, especially when the offender may be someone of a higher social status. Second, the rule of law is in a dismal state in much of India, with police sometimes not investigating sexual offences or the courts taking inordinate amounts of time to resolve complaints. Bribes and intimidation are also features of the legal landscape in the subcontinent.

At the mass rallies held recently, many Indians offered their thoughts on how the situation could be improved. Their proscription is usually similar: have the government pass more laws to improve the legal system's responsiveness to rape allegations and force police to prosecute complaints seriously.

While this proposed remedy stems from a sincere concern for their fellow human beings, the whole idea of passing more laws perhaps misses the point. After all, there's no shortage of laws against rape in India. The Indian Penal Code sets out the sexual offences quite clearly.

The problem would seem to be more of a structural and cultural one, and this requires more lateral thinking if we are to come up with effective solutions. Arguably, the proper remedy may lie in repealinglaws, and re-directing law and order resources.


For example, rather than spending millions enforcing laws that don't make sense – like the laws against unlicensed street hawkers that allow police to harass non-violent individuals trying to make an honest living – why not have police focus on violent crimes like murder, assault and rape? Would that not be better than adding another layer of bureaucracy and confusion through the passage of more laws?

A study by the Centre for Civil Society sets out many other instances of fruitless wastage of police resources. This could almost be a blueprint for reform of the justice system in India.

When I was in India several years ago, I came across a woman at a train station who had collapsed and lay sprawled on the ground. Onlookers passed her by silently, looking but not offering assistance. In the same way, the 23 year old rape victim and her male companion were left on the side of the road to die, and passing cars slowed down to look but did not help. Maybe it's not more laws that India needs, but more compassion and better enforcement of existing laws. The intense scrutiny being placed on police by protestors is a good start.

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Sukrit Sabhlok's father Sanjeev Sabhlok, a former member of the Indian Administrative Service and now a member of the Freedom Team of India, recently spoke at a protest rally attended by thousands near India Gate in New Delhi.

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About the Author

Sukrit Sabhlok is a PhD Candidate at Macquarie University Law School.

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