Have we learnt anything from the 16 December rape incident?

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Nirbhaya protests
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Nine months after a 23-year-old physiotherapy student was raped and brutalised in Delhi, a fast-track trial court in the city held all four adults accused of the crime guilty of rape and murder. The court upheld all 13 charges within which the Delhi police and prosecution lawyers framed the case. Whilst one of the accused, Ram Singh, died in jail on 11 March this year and the juvenile accused was convicted for rape and given the maximum sentence of three years, the other four – Mukesh Saini, Vinay Sharma, Pawan Gupta and Akshay Thakur – have been declared guilty.

Even though their sentence will be pronounced on 11 September, the case has already shifted ground since Nirbhaya’s death. The spontaneous outpouring on the streets of Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru and even in small towns across India has been unprecedented.  And the conversations around violence against women and minors have continued, even if the media has reported on it selectively.

Sadly, the same cannot be said for the conduct of the UPA. After announcing a Rs 1000-crore Nirbhaya fund in the budget in March this year, the money is lying unspent in the Ministry of Finance. Key ministries like Women and Child Development sent in their proposals on how they think this money should be spent only two days ago.

This is not the only visible sign of the government’s apathy. Various womens’ rights groups have conducted safety audits for cities like Delhi and recommended fixing street lights in deserted alleys and bringing back street hawkers to bus stops. These have not been done yet.

One landmark that the case brought in its wake is the Justice Verma report, which led to an amendment in our laws on rape. The amended law, once it comes into effect, will punish sexual assault of varying degrees including voyeurism and also provide for the sentencing of a minimum of twenty years for rape. However, one important recommendation of the commission was dropped once the bill went to Parliament to be passed – that marital rape be punishable under the law. The same parliamentarians who expressed outrage and concern outside their citadel dropped this important clause, once it came to drafting the bill.

Further, activist Harsh Mander, who has been putting together the ‘India Exclusion Report’, pointed out that one set of women have been left out of these conversations altogether. These are the street women in cities like Mumbai and Delhi who, statistically speaking, are raped a few times every week. When will we start asking questions about their safety? Vulnerability to violence, especially on our streets, is often connected to other forms of violence that women face. The most common is domestic violence. Women who stand up to it often find themselves on the street, where they become vulnerable to other sexual crimes.

There are also other more uncomfortable questions that are now being asked: What should we tell our children? How do we draw the line between obscenity and erotica, objectifying women and letting them decide how they want to be seen? None of these are easy to answer, but the conversations have moved from select drawing rooms to the street.

There is one part of this conversation though that is more troubling than the rest – the clamour for the death sentence. Immediately after the verdict, Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde made a statement to the press advocating death penalty for all four accused in the Nirbhaya case. As did  BJP leader Sushma Swaraj. As politicians, they have echoed the voice on the street. But they do clash rudely with the reasoned voices of the lawyers that drafted the Justice Verma report and various womens’ groups that work with victims of rape. They say there is no evidence from countries that mandate the death penalty that it acts as a deterrent to rape. In fact, the evidence suggests that the opposite is true. A judge thinks many times before pronouncing the death sentence. Since no judge wants the death of an innocent on her conscience, the impulse is to not convict when the penalty is death. The debate around the punishment also connects back to what should be done to make this country safe for women.

This is a long and painful list. From police reforms and police training to quick response teams and the most difficult of them all – the battle of the mind, the battle to grow out of an infantile idea of who we are and what our cultures dictate to at least an adolescent reckoning with our sexuality, our violence and most shameful of all – our misogyny.

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