Challenges Remain in the Prevention of Sexual Violence in India

Press Release

Jiyan Roytalukdar

The Mathura rape case of 1972, where a young tribal girl was raped by two uniformed police officials in Maharashtra, was a watershed moment in India’s rape laws that shook the country and initiated the first changes in India’s archaic rape laws.  Forty years later, the brutal Nirbhaya case of 2012 jolted the nation out of its stupor.  The case led to reforms in the rape laws in the country, redefined rape, brought in stringent punishment and introduced death penalties for repeat rape offenders. Yet on the ground, little seems to have changed for the girls and women in India. The latest crime figures against women tell a different story. There has been a 15% increase in cases of crime against women in 2021 from the previous year, according to the latest National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data released in August 2022.

According to NCRB data, 4,28,278 cases of crimes against women were registered in 2021, up by 56,775 since 2020. In 2012, the year ‘Nirbhaya’ was raped, India had 2,44,270 reported cases of crimes against women. Discussing the Mathura rape case, Dr Vahida Nainar, an Independent Researcher and Gender Consultant, who has explored the history of sexual violence law reforms in India, said the landmark case led to the first amendment in 1983, which considered the victim’s testimony of non-consent as a fact in the trial. Additionally, custodial rape was criminalized and the burden of proof shifted from the victim to the offender. Dr Nainar was speaking on the second day of the Three-Day Immersive Online Certificate Training Course on Feminism: Fundamentals, Facets and Future held between February 23-25th, 2023

The #WebPolicyLearning session organised by the Gender Impact Studies Center (GISC) at IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute, New Delhi introduced the participants to the origins and trajectory of feminism, its contemporary and European aspects, intersectional feminism, feminist theory in India, and the intersection of law and feminism. It initiated a dialogue on the fundamentals and core values of feminist theory and encouraged a feminist consciousness within the participants. Dissecting Jyoti Singh’s heinous rape case of 2012, Dr Nainar talked about the formation of the Justice Verma Committee and the changes the case brought about in judicial language and vocabulary, in expanding the definition of rape, recognizing other conducts of sexual assault, widening the understanding of consent, and outlining the procedure for aggravated sexual assault cases.

Some recommendations made their way into the criminal amendment act of 2013 and 2018, and the POSCO amendment act of 2019. Dr Nainar stressed the continuing challenges of searching for alternate approaches to accountability, reparation of sexual violence, prevention and protection against sexual violence, and realising the principle of equality before the law. The first day of the session was led by Prof Vibhuti Patel, former professor at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai and a Visiting Distinguished Professor at IMPRI, who highlighted the pervasiveness of feminist attitudes in the contemporary world. The discussion was then taken over by Dr Leena Pujari, Associate Professor and Head of the Department of Sociology, K C College, Mumbai. Focusing on the works of  Bell Hooks, Sarah Ahmed, and Nivedita Menon, she discussed their individual interpretation of feminism and their similarities and differences.

She concluded that feminism is a personal concept about understanding the interconnected nature of oppression and interrogating systemic injustices’ evolution and transformation. Dr Pujari, while discussing the Anti-Slavery Convention in 1840 and the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, dwelled on the seminal works of Olympe de Gouges, who wrote the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Women’ in response to the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man’ in 1791. Moving on, Prof Roxana, Professor in the Faculty of International Business and Economics, Department of Modern Languages and Business Communication, Bucharest University of Economic Studies, Romania, defined features of contemporary feminism, namely the emergence of intersectionality and the plurality of voices that have emerged.

She discussed Angela Mcrobie’s post-feminist critique of a ‘faux feminism’ that has developed due to the instrumentalization of feminism by governments, the labour market, and corporate organizations, and the individualization of feminist struggle in popular culture. Introducing the concept of ‘femocrats’ – women bureaucrats who imposed their vision of feminism from the top – she urged the audience to question the gender equality movements coming from the top instead of passively receiving them. On the second day of the season, Prof Manisha Desai, Department Head of Sociology and Professor of Sociology and Asian and Asian American Studies at the University of Connecticut, USA, traced the history of feminist concerns and brought forth the central position that reflexivity has held in feminist discourse. She defined reflexivity as self-critique via reflection, which has been essential in the survival of feminism.

Dr Desai examined the evolution of concerns in the feminist movement to the development of the concept of intersectionality and how decoloniality had developed as the most current expression of reflexivity in feminism. She illustrated how decoloniality sought to move away from Eurocentric models of understanding and brought in issues of settled coloniality in regions of America and Australia. Later, Prof Vibhuti Patel traced the history of feminist activism in India, going back all the way to the therigathas of Buddhist bhikunis. She highlighted the role of women stalwarts like Savitribai Phule, Tarabai Shinde, Pandita Ramabai, and Dr Rakmabai in the 19th and 20th-century social reform movement and their assertion for causes of female education, child marriage, female infanticide, caste-based oppression and the condition of widows.

This trend found its way into the Indian freedom movement which saw large-scale participation of women. She discussed critical areas in feminist politics in India, such as ecofeminism, the livelihood concerns of women, the reproductive rights of women in India and the problem of their implementation. The last day saw Dr Saumya Uma, Professor and Director, Centre for Women’s Rights, Jindal Global Law School (JGLS) discuss the use of feminist principles in the analysis of law and understanding its ramifications. She discussed the forms of women’s subordination, and how the law, which is built upon male experiences, can be one tool of oppression of women. She concluded by outlining the different lines of critique that feminists have pushed against laws, statutory provisions, institutions, and programs.

She talked about examples of feminist advocacy initiatives which ushered in new laws like the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act of 2005, and the Criminal Law Amendment Act, of 2018. Prof Linda Lane, Senior Lecturer, Department of Social Work, University of Gothenburg, Sweden, emphasized the importance of locating the place of women from diverse backgrounds in the feminist discourse, which was primarily written from the perspective of white, upper-middle-class, heterosexual women. She talked about the role of Kimberly Crenshaw in formalizing the definition of intersectionality and elaborated on her three critical aspects of intersectionality – structural intersectionality, political intersectionality, and representational intersectionality. Highlighting the link between women’s subjugation under colonialism and patriarchy, she talked about the emergence of new issues brought forth by globalization and neo-liberalism.

The last lecture delivered by Prof Bijayalaxmi Nanda, Principal and Professor of Political Science at Miranda House, University of Delhi, stressed the importance of engaging with different feminist perspectives and adopting a syncretic approach to bring about change. She discussed the declining sex ratio in India and the contradictions that have emerged over this phenomenon like the competing rights of women and girls, the debate over reproductive autonomy, and the emergence of new feminist discourses on sex-selective abortion. Dr Nanda elaborated on the “policy response continuum”, with the killing of female foetuses on the demand end, and the formation of policies by the State to respond to this gender discrimination on the supply end.

She pointed to the collaboration between feminist academics and activists in India to make demands on the State to bring out women empowerment schemes, financial incentive schemes and other laws. The session was moderated by Aashwash Mahanta, a researcher at IMPRI, who welcomed and introduced the speakers for the event.

Watch the Event at IMPRI #WebPolicyLearning

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