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Rape - Need gender-just laws, not death penalty: Kavita Krishnan

Interview with secretary of the All India Progressive Women`s Association

Veenu Sandhu  |  New Delhi 

Death penalty for rape will not ensure justice to the victim, says Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association. The problem, she tells Veenu Sandhu, is that the laws meant to protect women are also biased against them

Since the brutal rape and torture of a 23-year-old which led to her death, several people, including politicians, want death penalty for rapists. But will it help?
I think who are saying ‘death penalty’ essentially mean that the crime of rape is heinous and deserves the highest punishment (which in our existing laws is death penalty). Their slogans mean no less, no more, than ‘highest punishment for rape’ — it is a demand that the seriousness of the crime be recognised, and the impunity ended. As a women’s movement activist, I myself do not think death penalty for rape will help victims get justice. The question we need to ask about sexual violence laws is not ‘Are they severe enough?’ but ‘Are they gender-just enough?’ and ‘Are they firmly grounded in a recognition of women’s inalienable rights?’. Countries like Saudi Arabia have death penalty, death by stoning etc, but women there are denied equality and rights as citizens!

The real problem we face in sexual assault cases is the abysmal rate of conviction. A gender-just protocol for police investigation of gender-based crimes will ensure a 100 per cent conviction rate, as will changes in the laws to recognise the many kinds of sexual assault. The conviction rate has plummeted from 46 per cent in 1971 to 26 per cent in 2010 because of shoddy policing and investigation, and deeply-entrenched gender bias in our laws, our police force and our judiciary.

Women groups have been opposing the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill 2012 in its current form. What are the loopholes in the Bill?
The Bill has major flaws and serious problems. For instance, it makes sexual assault or rape a ‘gender-neutral’ crime — this means that a man can accuse a woman of rape! The ‘perpetrator’ should be clearly defined as male, while recognising male-on-male sexual assault. Then, the bill specifically refuses to recognise marital rape — which is a shame in a democracy. Rapes by security forces also need to be recognised and incorporated.

The Sexual Harassment at the Workplace (Prevention) Bill is also biased against women. It has a clause for punishing ‘false complaints’ by women. No other criminal law has a ‘false complaint’ clause — then why a law relating to violence on women do so? Is it because women are assumed to be potential liars? This clause will seriously deter and intimidate women complainants.

Marginalised, tribal women, and women in conflict areas are especially vulnerable to rape. What is the way out?

Rape cases have been increasing for a long time. One factor is the patriarchal backlash to women’s increased assertion. We need to recognise that rape is an act of power — an assertion of patriarchal power, often compounded by the power of the dominant caste/community or the State. That’s why women from oppressed groups in conflict areas are more vulnerable — most so when the rapist wears a uniform and is seen to represent the ‘nation’ and the woman comes from the ‘enemy’ community.

To prevent rape, the mindset towards women has to change. That’s easier said than done. But then, how do we sensitise our society?
Movements like the ongoing one go a long way to change mindsets, more than any formal ‘gender-sensitisation’ procedure. The women’s movement and every one of its struggles deal a blow to patriarchal ideology. But the State continues to endorse feudal values and forces. The Delhi Police ad campaign, for instance, portrays women as feeling ‘shame’ at sexual harassment and needing male protection! A National Commission for Women hoarding uses a Gandhi quote — “Women are the special custodians of all that is pure and religious in life” — oblivious to the point that when women refuse to be custodians of (caste) purity or religion, and marry in defiance of caste/community norms, they face horrific violence in the name of ‘honour’. I’d like to see state institutions back the movement against khap panchayats and feudal forces, and school curriculum include gender sensitisation. But, the greatest ‘sensitisation’ comes from women’s own assertion, both personal and collective.

Is the message of the protests being hijacked by politics?
I won’t put it in terms of ‘politics’ hijacking the movement, rather as a case of sexist/misogynist politics (like that of Ramdev and BJP/Sangh Parivar, known for their moral policing) trying (and failing as yet) to hijack a movement to deflect its focus. Young girls are on the streets saying “My voice is higher than my skirt” — what can Ramdev, who lectures actresses on morality, possibly have to say to these girls?! Rather, their message is meant for him and his ilk. Girls have rejected Sushma Swaraj’s “zinda laash” insult to rape survivors. We need to make women’s unconditional right to freedom without fear a central question in politics — and help make sexism less ‘acceptable’. The struggle for women’s rights is political, isn’t it? It is changing the terms and discourse of politics. In US, the Republicans could lose an election due to their leaders’ misogynistic statements on rape. We need to ensure that misogyny carries a political cost. Let’s begin with ensuring political consequences for Sushma (and her party) of ‘zinda laash’ notoriety, and the Andhra Pradesh Congress chief who said, “Just because our country got freedom at midnight does not mean women have the freedom to roam about at night — why did the Delhi rape victim board a bus with just a handful of passengers in it?”

First Published: Sun, December 30 2012. 00:07 IST