DELHI -- Aarti Natarajan, an education consultant, who has grown up in Delhi, describes everyday as a constant battle to secure her safety in the city.
“From the moment I step out of the house I push a paranoia button. You look at everyone with suspicion,” she said. “Everywhere you go, no matter what you wear, you will be blatantly stared at. It’s very intrusive.”
Natarajan, who often drives home from work after dark, says that on several occasions men playing loud music in their cars and making lewd gestures have followed her.
“So every time I have to think twice before staying for work late or going for an office dinner,” she said.
The dangers faced by women living in Delhi came under international scrutiny when a 23-year-old student was gang-raped and assaulted with an iron rod by six men in a moving bus on Dec. 16 in the capital. Two weeks later, she died. The brutal attack led to nationwide protests demanding justice for the victim and better protection for women.
Three months after the rape, new laws that expand the scope of sexual offenses to include stalking and voyeurism, and make repeat rapists subject to the death penalty, have come into force. The challenge now is implementation of these laws and inspiring confidence among women to approach the police for help.
Natarajan, 31, knows about the new laws. But she says that unless she finds herself in extreme physical danger, she prefers to avoid any interaction with the Delhi police. Even reporting a theft, she recalled, had been a harrowing experience a few years ago.
“I don’t think women can take advantage of these laws until the people who have to implement them are trained how to deal sensitively in these situations,” she said. “That should be the first step.”
Natarajan’s woes echo those of many living in the capital city of 18 million people. Widespread harassment of women cuts across all economic sections of society. But most people would prefer not to deal with the police who have a reputation for being insensitive and callous when approached by women for help -- especially women from the economically weaker sections of society.
The Justice J.S. Verma Committee, set up to recommend changes to existing sexual crime laws after the gang rape, had suggested several police reforms as well. These included establishing a rape crisis cell, allowing complainants to file FIRs online, boosting the number of women police officers in mobile vans and training the police to deal with sexual offenses.
“The insensitivity of the police to deal with rape victims is well-known,” the committee wrote. “To inspire public confidence … police officers with reputations of outstanding ability and character must be placed at the higher levels of the police force.”
Shabbu Misra, 22, a saleswoman at a cosmetics store, has to make an almost hour-long bus journey from her home to her workplace in a posh market.
Misra says that she regularly deals with some form of harassment, a lewd gesture or an inappropriate remark, while traveling. "The news laws sound good but I don’t want to go to the police,” she said. “I think I’ll be the one getting into trouble.”
Following the Delhi gang rape, the need for women cops has also been highlighted. Nawaz Kotwal, the police reforms coordinator at the Delhi-based Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, estimated that only 5% to 6% of Delhi’s approximately 85,000 police personnel are women.
Kotwal noted that the government’s assurance of increasing women cops to 33% rang hollow especially since no efforts have been made to encourage women to join the force. Many police stations do not even have female toilets.
“There have been no dearth of committees and commissions set up but probably no one is reading the recommendations," she added. "There is no political will and it’s not in anyone’s vested interested to act.”
While more women are speaking out, sexual crimes are still massively under-reported because of the stigma associated with them. In police stations across the country, women complaining of sexual assaults are turned away or subjected to uncomfortable interrogations by unsympathetic cops even from women police personnel. A patriarchal society blames the victim for bringing a rape or sexual assault upon her self.
“The stigmatization is so much that some girls begin to blame themselves,” said P.L. Minroth, head of the Centre for Dalit Rights, an organization that promotes the rights of the people traditionally called "untouchable," in Jaipur, Rajasthan. “They try to isolate themselves as much as possible and some commit suicide.”
CDR's survey of over 100 Dalit rape victims in Jaipur revealed that 40 to 50 percent of them left the homes of their parents or their in-laws because of the rape.
A Kerala woman who was raped in 2002 when she was 20, says that she now regrets speaking out. “Since then, not a single relative has visited us. Their attitude has ensured that I am stuck with the stigma of being a rape victim,” she told the Indian Express newspaper.
Attitudes, however, are changing due to concerted efforts made by non-governmental organizations to sensitize families and the police.
Rishi Kant, head of Shakti Vahini, a group that stops human trafficking, gives the example of a 17-year-old girl raped in a Delhi brothel; she found courage to speak out after her family rallied to her aid.
“Nothing helps these girls more than family support,” said Kant. “Now, this girl is traveling from Kolkata to Delhi for court hearings even though she is facing threats from traffickers.”
And the new laws address not only rape, but less extreme crimes such as stalking, voyeurism and the harassment that women like Natarajan and Misra deal with regularly. “These laws are closer to the experience of violence women are facing,” said Karuna Nundy, a prominent Supreme Court lawyer.
Throwing acid on a woman, previously not a crime, is now punishable with ten years to life imprisonment. Attempting to disrobe a woman is punishable by three to seven years. Repeat offense of rape or rape causing coma is subject to the death penalty. Police officials who fail to register complaints of sexual offenses or of an acid attack can be sent to prison for two years.
Nundy also pointed out that the new laws also require the government to help after an attack by providing medical aid to acid attack victims, as well as compensation for the recovery of rape survivors.
SmartPlanet asked five Delhi women about whether they knew about the recently enacted laws. Four of them said that they had heard of these laws but didn’t know the specifics.
Jayshree Satpute, a human rights lawyer, said the government’s immediate challenge is to educate people about the laws. “Forget women in rural villages, lawyers in Delhi don’t know about them,” she said. “It’s going to be a few years in practice before we begin to understand how these work.”
To this end, Satpute suggested that the government invest in strengthening the state legal aid authorities, which are made up of lawyers who offer their services free to those who can’t afford to pay for counsel.
“No matter how good the laws are, it all comes down to the implementation so legal training is key,” she said. “It can be done. It just needs strategies and the will of the government.”
Top photo: Jaskirat Singh Bawa/Flickr; Bottom photo: Betwa Sharma