NEW DELHI (TrustLaw) - The outcry over the brutal gang rape of a young woman in New Delhi last month has not only brought into focus the issue of violence against women in India but has also shone a light on the way the country’s criminal justice system frequently fails rape victims.
There were 24,206 rapes reported in 2011 by the National Crime Records Bureau, equivalent to one rape every 20 minutes.
While many Indians are calling for changes in the law such as capital punishment for rapists and new legislation to protect women, many civil rights’ lawyers disagree. They say India has good gender laws already, but they need to be strengthened and enforced.
The following is a list of six steps India can take to ensure rape victims receive adequate care and support and that swift justice is delivered, compiled from interviews with police, lawyers and human rights activists.
Like most large organisations in the country, India’s police force is male-dominated - only 6.5 percent of officers are women. Deep-rooted patriarchal beliefs mean the police force, like many other institutions such as government bodies or parliament, is often seen as insensitive to the issues faced by women.
Gender sensitisation training as well as increasing the number of female police officers in India will help change attitudes within the police force, activists and lawyers say. This would also help ensure victims’ complaints are treated seriously and sympathetically.
There have been numerous cases of girls and women being turned away by the police when they try to report a rape - officers do not take the crime seriously or they blame the victim.
In many instances, the largely underpaid, overworked police officers have little interest in registering or investigating a gender crime that can take years to reach judgment. Sometimes, if the accused is powerful or wealthy, police can be influenced into taking no action.
Activists say current methods of filing complaints against the police are cumbersome and difficult for the average Indian. A simple mechanism should be set up to channel and address public complaints and police should be penalised or suspended if found guilty of dereliction of duty, they add.
India has no formal protocol in place for medical or psychological support of victims. They are often not given adequate treatment for injuries or infections, let alone counselling.
Cases have been reported of traumatised victims who are made to go from one government hospital to another for medical examinations or who are forced to sit for hours in bloodied clothes after the assault.
Activists say there needs to be a standard protocol across the country to examine and treat rape victims, such as the World Health Organisation’s guidelines for medico-legal care for sexual assault victims.
A failure to invest in the police force has left many officers lacking the expertise and resources required to conduct adequate investigations, resulting in weak evidence and low convictions.
Lawyers say the handling of forensic evidence such as fingerprints, hair or nail samples - a key component in rape cases where the onus lies with the prosecution to prove the rape - is often collected, transported and stored in a careless manner.
The core competencies of the police need to be strengthened and officers must be given training and resources to carry out their work, lawyers say. Standard operating procedures for conducting investigations need to be applied across the country, they add.
One of the biggest impediments to gaining justice for rape victims is the lengthy duration of the trials, awyers say.
A lack of prosecutors, judges and courts mean that an average rape case can take five to 10 years to get to the judgment stage, leaving victims or other witnesses vulnerable to intimidation or unwilling to pursue such drawn-out court trials.
The Delhi gang rape has fuelled demands for special fast-track courts to deal with crimes against women, but some lawyers say not only are such courts costly but that swift justice does not always mean just justice.
Some legal experts add that India needs to invest more in the legal and judicial system and concentrate on hiring of thousands more judges and prosecutors.
Victims and witnesses can be intimidated by the accused, who in some cases is granted bail by the court, even though rape is a non-bailable offence.
As a result, victims can feel pressured into accepting illegal “out-of-court” settlements such as a small cash payment. In more extreme instances, the victim’s family is pressurised into marrying their daughter to the accused.
Lawyers and activists say India needs an official witness protection program in place for victims of sexual assault and other serious offences.