The slow road to justice for India’s rape victims

Despite promises to fast-track rape cases, many victims and survivors in India must wait years for a glimpse of justice.

Rape survivor, India
A 32-year-old mother of three who was raped more than a year ago in Delhi is still waiting for justice [Neha Tara Mehta/Al Jazeera]

Delhi, India – Some tattered sheets of paper protected from the city’s monsoon rains are all she has as proof of a rape case she filed against her landlord a year-and-a-half ago.

A mother of three, the 32-year-old wears thick vermillion on her forehead and keeps her head covered, her brown and green sari almost camouflaging her against the trees behind her.

She can’t read any of the documents, but points to a stapled sheet of paper – her police complaint.

“I mustered the courage to file a rape complaint in February last year,” she says. “I waited for something to happen after that, but the police dragged their feet on filing charges.”

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The woman must remain unnamed as Indian law prohibits the identification of a rape survivor.

After waiting for 10 months for the charges to be filed, she lodged a complaint against the police’s inaction with the local Delhi government.

An official at the city’s public grievance management system confirmed to Al Jazeera that after the local government intervened, the police finally filed charges in the woman’s case in April this year – nearly 14 months after the original complaint.

Al Jazeera has a copy of the paper trail maintained by the local government in this case.

The long wait has taken a toll on the woman. Sometimes she flies into fits of rage, she says. At other times she cries uncontrollably. Then there is the constant wrath of her husband.

“I am lucky that he hasn’t thrown me out. But he can’t forgive me for reporting my rape,” she says. “He says I should never have gone to the police because there is no justice in sight for us.” 

Nearly four years after the fatal gang rape of “Nirbhaya”, a 23-year-old medical student, on a moving bus jolted the country into passing a tough new anti-rape law, sexual violence against women continues to make headlines.

Nearly 100 rapes are reported each day but only one in four rape cases leads to a conviction.

Another gang rape shook India on July 29 – this time of a mother and her teenage daughter, who were dragged from their car in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh and taken to a nearby field, where they were assaulted.

At around the same time, a 21-year-old woman was allegedly raped for a second time by the same group of men who had raped her in 2013 – because she refused to accept their out-of-court settlement.

Promises of fast-tracking unfulfilled

One of the big ticket reforms after the 2013 Nirbhaya gang rape was the setting-up of fast-track courts for sexual assault cases. But for most rape survivors, the path to justice remains far from speedy.  

Despite the intense media spotlight on the Nirbhaya case, her family is still waiting for justice. Six men, including a teenager, were arrested for raping and assaulting the medical student with an iron rod in December 2012. One of the accused committed suicide in jail. The teenager was released in 2015 after serving three years in a correctional home.

A trial court sentenced the remaining four men – a gym instructor, an unemployed youth, a fruit seller and a bus cleaner – to death within nine months. The case then moved up to the High Court, which also awarded them the death penalty in March 2014, saying the crime they committed was “unparalleled in the history of criminal jurisprudence”.

The convicts filed a plea against their sentence in the country’s top court, the Supreme Court, and the case has been stuck there for more than two years.

Even after all the changes to the law after my daughter's rape, rape cases are still being dragged in the country. As a result of this, no one is scared of either the police or the courts and girls are being dragged out of their cars in front of their families and being raped.

by Asha Devi, mother of 'Nirbhaya', who died after being gang raped in 2012

“Even after all the changes to the law after my daughter’s rape, rape cases are still being dragged in the country,” says Asha Devi, Nirbhaya’s mother.

“As a result of this, no one is scared of either the police or the courts and girls are being dragged out of their cars in front of their families and being raped,” she adds.

“The fast-tracking of rape cases is the biggest promise that has been broken. Lawyers are big culprits in this – they keep postponing appearances,” explains Ranjana Kumari of the Delhi-based Centre for Social Research.

Rape trials in India can proceed at a glacial pace, dragging on for five to 10 years, if not longer. When a case is resolved relatively swiftly, it invokes stark comparisons with the many others that are not.

For instance, on August 4, a fast-track court in Delhi sentenced Mahmood Farooqui, a Bollywood film director, for raping an American woman in March 2015 – a speedy judgment that came a little over a year after the crime.

But fast-tracking a rape case involving a foreigner is not a favour done to her, says Vrinda Grover, her lawyer.

“She is at an acute disadvantage because she is not in her own country, is away from her family, friends, work. How long should she stay here to pursue her right to justice?”

Grover says that she has asked for the fast-tracking of other cases of sexual violence as well. But this rarely happens.

The lawyer is representing seven women in cases of gang rape that allegedly took place during religious riots in 2013. A fast-track court in Muzaffarnagar, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, is hearing those. But after repeated adjournments, two of the women have refused to identify the accused, Grover says.

And one of the complainants in Muzaffarnagar will not see justice. She died shortly after giving birth on August 10.

Police and courts: ‘Meagre’ legal understanding

Rape survivors filing complaints with the local Delhi government’s public grievance monitoring system (PGMS) have reported delays in the police registration of their complaint, or an absolute refusal to register their complaint at all.

“Any delay in this [registration] would significantly reduce the chances of finding biological evidence of rape during the medical examination,” explains Vijaya Chandra, Delhi’s chief public grievance officer.

Even when the complaint is registered, survivors say the police can and sometimes do refuse to add certain charges – thereby reducing the seriousness of the complaint.

Chandra points towards rape cases in which the police initially only filed charges of kidnap or sexual harassment. The more serious charges of rape, gang rape and culpable homicide were added only subsequently, he says.

In one in five complaints received by the PGMS, women report receiving threats of retaliatory attacks by the accused. There are also cases of “inordinate” delays in filing of charges, says Chandra, leading some women to “disown” their complaints.

Ajitha K Anweshi, of the Anweshi Women’s Counselling Centre, in the southern state of Kerala, says that both the police and courts “are given very meagre understanding of the various aspects of the new laws.

“A lot of corruption is involved in the process, which drastically affects the attainment of justice for the survivor.”

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Victim-blaming is another obstacle many survivors encounter at the police station.

In nearly 90 percent of the cases, the accused is known to the survivor. 

“If there is any indication of the fact that the perpetrator was known to the victim, investigating agencies try and find a way to pin the blame on the girl,” says Ravi Verma of the International Center for Research on Women.

“By and large, when a woman goes to the police to report a rape, she is asked embarrassing personal questions,” says Anuradha Kapoor of Swayam, a women’s rights organisation based in Kolkata, in the eastern state of West Bengal.

“She has to relive her rape through these intrusive questions.”

Sanalembi Devi, of Women in Governance, in the northeastern state of Assam, says: “There is a tendency to say that the girl has come with a fake case of rape to take revenge from a man. The police don’t actually want to go searching for the accused.”

Kumari, of the Centre for Social Research, says that while the police in Delhi have introduced several structural changes in how they deal with rape cases, police in other states remain lax.

“The Delhi police is registering complaints even at the cost of doubling its caseload. But states like Uttar Pradesh and Haryana need to do a lot more to sensitise their police force.”

Al Jazeera made several attempts via phone and email to reach the Delhi police for comment and answers to submitted questions over a period of two weeks, but received no response.

‘Poked and prodded like a piece of meat’

On paper, some of the literature dealing with forensic medicine and criminal jurisprudence has been revised and made more sensitive to rape survivors.

“It used to draw on colonial stereotypes to examine rape survivors and propagated the idea that the victim is a liar, and her body must be read against her words,” says Kavita Krishnan, the secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association.

After the edits, she says, medical and law students who use this textbook will not be taught “terribly sexist” things about rape. 

“A survivor is to be looked at in terms of the medical care she needs, rather than catching her body out in a lie.” 

But in practice, forensic biases persist.

“There is this notion that a woman who has been raped must carry some signs on her body that proves or disproves rape. In reality, there are no injuries in most cases of rape,” says Padma Bhate-Deosthali of CEHAT, a health advocacy, training and research organisation in Mumbai.

Bhate-Deosthali points out that doctors carry out “mechanical” medico-legal exams. “Even if a woman reports oral penetration, the doctor might insist on the mindless collection of swabs from the vagina.”

In a recent paper she co-authored, she wrote that medical professionals continue to document details such as the size of a woman’s vaginal opening, old tears to the hymen and past obstetric history despite being prohibited to do so by law.

Many doctors tend to have their own guidelines for medico-legal exams in cases of sexual assault, agrees Kapoor, of Swayam.

“Women are poked and prodded like pieces of meat. We often see that doctors don’t want to sign properly on medical exams because they don’t want to be called into court.”

There is also the confusion about treating survivors if they don’t come into a hospital with a police complaint.

“By law, no hospital is allowed to deny treatment to survivors regardless of whether they have filed a complaint against the rape or not,” says Trisha Shetty of She Says, a web portal that seeks to empower women against sexual violence.

“But we have encountered cases of government hospitals denying entry to victims if they don’t have a police complaint registered.”

Source: Al Jazeera