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Millions march against violence against women in India

22.01.2013

In a historical protest against sexual violence against women hundreds of thousands of angry women and men spontaneously gathered in the streets in India, following the brutal 16 December gang rape and murder of a 23 year old student in Delhi.

The brutal gang rape of a young medical student in a moving bus in Delhi on 16 December 2012 and her eventual death on 28 December triggered widespread outrage in India. In the brief time she lived after the horrible attack, she told the world of the suffering she had undergone. In an unprecedented display of anger, spontaneous enormous demonstrations appeared throughout the country. The marches demanded that law enforcing authorities act swiftly to arrest and punish the perpetrators of the heinous crime, and called for better policing and harsher punishments for rapists in general.

The crime exposed the lackadaisical attitude of the Indian political class, law enforcing authorities and justice system towards issues of sexual crimes against women and the deep rooted malady of the country’s patriarchal society. According to India’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) from 2009-2011 about 25,392 women lost their lives in dowry related harassment and 282,722 women were subjected to cruelty by their husband or relatives. There are 95,065 pending trial cases of rape in India. Owing to gaps in the criminal investigative system nearly 75 per cent of those accused are not convicted in rape cases.

The anger displayed by young people in the Delhi streets signified the alarming proportion of sexual crimes and called for the immediate attention of the government to revamp the system to address violence against women. In response to the protests the Government of India formed a three-member committee of jurists headed by the former Chief Justice of India, J.S. Verma, to suggest amendments to criminal law to sternly deal with sexual assault cases. The accused in this case, including a juvenile, are now facing trial in India’s fast-track court.

Addressing sexual harassment at workplaces is also an important issue that requires immediate attention as a large number of India’s women are entering the workforce. After a long delay, the Government of India on 3 September 2012 passed the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition & Redressal) Bill introduced in 2010 in Lok Sabha. However it still needs to be passed by the Rajya Sabha (Upper House).

The Bill seeks to provide protection to women against sexual harassment at all workplaces including those organized and unorganized in the public and private sectors. It provides for prevention and redress of complaints of sexual harassment. Women who are employed as well as those who enter the workplace as clients, customers or apprentices besides the students and research scholars in colleges and universities are sought to be covered under the legislation.

Until now, directives issued in the Supreme Court ruling in 1997, in the case of Vishaka and Others vs. the State of Rajasthan (AIR 1997 SC 3011) constitute a first major step in India to address sexual harassment at the workplace. However, the experience shows that in a large number of workplaces women did not even know that such a redress mechanism exists; neither do managers on the shop-floor. Equally concerning, labour administration officials do not know either how to use the directives to address sexual harassment at the workplace.

Trade unions and civil society activists called for sincere government efforts to address violence against women through strengthening legislation, swift investigation of sexual crime and more importantly increasing the number of women police personnel and a sensitization of law enforcing authorities. Employers should also take genuine steps to address sexual harassment, which is one among many gender discriminatory issues faced by women at workplaces.

The situation is also truely globally. Persistent discrimination constitutes the root cause of violence against women. This culture of discrimination should be stopped. According to a United Nations report up to 70 per cent of women experience violence in their lifetime. World Bank data highlights that women aged 15 to 44 are more at risk from rape and domestic violence than from cancer, car accidents, war and malaria. It is also a well-documented fact that armed forces in some conflicts consciously use sexual violence against women to humiliate opponents.

World governments should come forward to create political will, public awareness, enact and implement appropriate legislation and commit more resources to address violence against women and girls.