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Sexual assault cases in India need efficient investigation; not vindictiveness by a public registry of sex offenders that may not even be accurate.
A recent piece of news that has emerged from Kerala is that, following an incident of Violence Against Women (VAW), the state government has mooted the idea of a registry of sex offenders. The plan is rather sketchy at the moment. All we know is that there are plans to put the identification details of sex offenders out in the public domain.
Let me remind you, this incident was just one of many that the media chose to highlight. It’s the sad truth that though incidents of VAW are many, we choose to focus only on the ones that affect ‘People Like Us’ (PLUs). This leads to fear mongering about stranger rape, and helps heighten prejudices against poor men who are already dehumanized by us.
In reality, almost 90% of all sexual assaults on Indian women and girls happen at the hands of people closest to them, including immediate family members, neighbours or colleagues. In other words, a known person is more likely to assault a woman than a stranger.
This news happened to be just another one in the long list of predictable knee-jerk reactions to VAW incidents. There are many such impulsive ideas that get floated from time to time. Many, one might say thankfully, don’t even see the light of day. Examples are ‘10,000 CCTV cameras on public buses’, or ‘all-women police stations’.
What we need are not government bodies composed exclusively of women, but better policing, investigations and convictions. We need more gender sensitivity from all officials of the government, including police personnel. No doubt all-women police stations help provide a sense of security to women who approach the police, but these are at best stopgaps, like all-women coaches in trains. The ability to apprehend criminals, prosecute them, and have criminals convicted is what all our police stations should be doing. Instead, conviction rates, especially in the cases of sexual assault, remain pathetic in India.
Such responses, taking over the mantle of ‘women’s safety’ are common and popular in our part of the world, and this is understandable. The popular discourse, in relation to the wretchedly risky lives women lead in this beleaguered nation of ours, has always tended towards safety. For one, it tends to obfuscate the real truth about sexual assault.
According to NCRB data, most of the assault a woman faces in her lifetime comes at the hands of family members, mainly husbands or intimate partners. Before marriage too, natal family, including fathers, brothers and uncles, seek to truncate women’s lives to the bare minimum of their existence, because obeisance to the time bound system of honour is more important than the piffle of a mere girl’s choice.
It’s a fact that immediate family members closely monitor women’s movements. This is one reason more and more women are dropping out of the work force. Educated women drop out of well-paying jobs, especially if it requires traveling.
Women’s autonomy is controlled and curtailed in the name of their safety. This kind of fear mongering only leads to more intense policing of women’s movement, specially outside the home.
Lawyers with experience of decades of defending human rights, like Indira Jaising, agree that our justice system is broken. We barely even pretend that it delivers justice. Yet we seem willing to jeopardize lives by going down a similar path when such a tag will haunt a convict or offender for life.
Despite the terrible conviction rate, which is low as the law enforcement and judicial machinery doesn’t inspire confidence, nor delivers efficiently, we are willing to put up with this registry. Because we all know that this will mostly have on its rolls the poorest people, the lower class and caste of society, as a recent survey of death row prisoners has showed. We will conveniently focus on the ‘other’, the man on the street, from a socially backward community, or marginalized group.
The notice regarding the registry isn’t clear if it will feature only convicted offenders. If so, the man has probably already served his time. A conviction, and a jail term, is a preventive measure, removing the man from society, taking away his freedoms and punishing him for his transgressions. I believe it should be enough that a man has served his time.
Not just punishment, we need rehabilitation too
A merciful justice system shouldn’t look to only convict and put away people behind bars. After all, they are to get back into mainstream society one day. This proposed registry would be totally against the grain of a plan of rehabilitation.
Reducing re-offending is of benefit to everybody. Equipping prisoners with skills and confidence is crucial in bringing down re-offending rates.
Sohaila Abdulali, herself a survivor of a brutal rape wrote movingly after the conviction of the Delhi December 2012 bus rapists, that “the collective feverish, titillated fascination at the prospect of executing the four men reminds me uncomfortably of the feverish, titillated fascination associated with rape itself. ”
This sex offender registry is very similar to the whole shout for “hang the rapists” and “castrate them”. We would like a convicted man to develop respect and compassion for others, and respect for the rule of law. A vindictive registry of this sort would be totally against the spirit of justice and the belief in new beginnings.
We should let go of this weird and wrong-headed idea.
Top image via Pixabay