Assam’s anti-rape regulations: Are they enough if they don’t address ‘rape culture’?

Assam’s anti-rape regulations: Are they enough if they don’t address ‘rape culture’?

By RACHEL SYIEMLIEH | April 12, 2018       

In recent weeks, the Northeastern state of Assam saw its Chief Minister, Sarbananda Sonowal, vowing to introduce a strict anti-rape law in the next session of the state Assembly in the wake of increasing cases of crime against women and children:

“Please give me all your suggestions in writing. We will discuss these with legal experts to frame a stringent law against rape”, he stated.

The CM additionally announced his aim to boost the recruitment of women officers in the police force by 30 percent. The announcement comes after the recent rape and murder of a five-year-old in Batadroba, located in the Nagaon district of Assam, which prompted the state’s female legislators to write a letter on the need for stringent anti-rape regulations to Speaker Hiten Goswami.

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Congress MLA from Boko, Assam, Nandita Das stated that Assam had reported 3,009 rape cases in the past two years but only 1,787 persons had been arrested and 76 convicted. It is no wonder, then, that even in a country where a woman gets raped every fifteen minutes, most sexual assault cases go unreported. Victims have claimed that even when they are reported, they were subjected to verbal abuse and demeaning questions at the hands of policemen, which is “even worse than the rape itself”.

However, in a country where news of rape is met with a good dose of moral policing and victim-blaming (“she shouldn’t be out that late at night, it’s only inevitable that such a thing should happen”, “look at the way she’s dressed, it’s no wonder”, etc) rather than actual preventive measures, the move to, in the least, address the gender diversity deficit through more recruitment is a welcome one. Whether the reserved posts are actually filled, however, is yet to be seen. Records show that despite such reservations by the government, there are hardly any takers for the job on account of sexual assault in the workplace as well as the traditional notion that police work is “aggressive and masculine”. Even when reported, such assault cases do not go any further than a workplace inquiry.

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Studies have indeed shown that sexual assault cases are more likely to be reported when female officers are available at stations. However, in India’s already low percentage of women police officers (the nation records a meagre 7.1%), even the ones currently employed are subjected to systemic marginalization with duties restricted to escorting female prisoners and assisting male officers instead of active duty.

In 2013, the Ministry of Home Affairs recommended each police station to have at least three women sub-inspectors and ten women police constables to ensure women help-desks are staffed at all times. Consequently, the national statistics, while pointing out an increase in the number of reported rapes in some states, also saw a subsequent drop in the conviction rate (40%). How then is this new move supposed to ensure protection or justice for victims when their perpetrators are hardly punished?

Perhaps the faulty structure of the Indian police force contributes to such an attitude. There is little to no mechanism to address and sensitize police recruits to basic human rights, responsibilities and gender dynamics. How gender-intelligent is our police force? Police recruitment training is restricted to physical tests and basic beat policing and includes little to no lessons on evidence gathering or investigative techniques. Not only is the selection process ill-designed, but the absence of such mechanisms post-selection will result in the wrong implementation of police responsibilities, ultimately deterring the criminal justice process.

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If we are indeed talking about the absence of sensitization on gender dynamics and human rights, let us take a good look at our society. What really is the underlying reason for India’s rape crisis? To say rape alone is the problem does not justify the continuing crisis despite endless protests, articles, debates, anti-rape regulations, women employment reservations, etc. This is where the term ‘rape culture’ comes in. The term ‘rape’ itself has a restricted definition in the Constitution and ‘rape culture’ is no different. Just like rape, it is a loaded term that comes with several connotations.

In the wake of a new wave of political activism, it’s hard to ignore the term ‘rape culture’ being brought up in conversations that are long overdue. We read about it on our phone screens and see it discussed on television (recently in relation to the #MeToo movement) but have we acknowledged it? What, after all, does it mean to say we live in a culture of rape? By definition, rape culture means “a society or environment whose prevailing social attitudes have the effect of normalizing or trivializing sexual assault and abuse”.

To put simply, the term describes a culture in which victims are accused of being complicit and are blamed for their own assaults, one in which incidences of sexual assault are met with passivity or are regarded as “an inevitable fact of life”, one where a pair of shorts on a woman is deemed “a call for rape”, one where a state CM declares that rape happens because “men and women interact freely”, one where a party chief justifies rape by stating, “ladke ladke hain, galti ho jati hai (boys will be boys, mistakes can be made)”, one that blames Chinese food rather than rapists for inciting rape…

Each time a parent or a relative says they are not surprised by an incident of rape, he/she reinforces our cultural expectations for women. Each time a relative speaks of an inappropriate uncle or friend as “jrong kti” (handsy  in Khasi language) without reprimanding him, we unravel proof of a culture of rape. Each time we condone a rape joke (“Oh, no one would rape her anyway because she’s too ugly”), or my male friends view male sexual violence as a joke (“I wouldn’t mind having a girl doing that to me”), we normalize the idea of sexual violence. Each time I condemn another woman for her choices: what she wears, what she drinks, where she goes), I contribute to rape culture. Each time I brush off somebody who has been inappropriate with me as “Oh, I suppose that’s just the way he is”, I allow this person to think his behaviour was okay, thereby contributing to the culture.

It’s difficult to acknowledge the fact that we live in such a culture and it’s terrifying how normal it has become to hear of sexual assaults. The refusal to acknowledge rape culture itself is a problem which may arise out of the clichéd image that we have of ‘the rapist’: a stranger jumping out of a corner on a lonely street with a weapon to assault women. While not disregarding such incidents of rape, a horrendous amount (94%, if you need numbers) of sexual assault cases in India have been reported to be inflicted by a partner rather than a non-partner, a person the victim is acquainted with (a friend, a boss, a family member, a date) rather than a stranger. When the perpetrators are people one sees everyday or someone one looks up to, it’s easy to look past them and just call it a “bad day” or a “mistake”. It’s far easier to believe that it is the men hiding in the bushes, drinking on the streets – the evil ones – who commit such crimes.” Not the sweet uncle down the street. Not my friend. Not my cousin. Not my partner.”

While the conversation around rape and rape culture is being unfolded one discussion at a time, there are still people who refuse to believe they are part of the problem. Because ultimately, what is it that irks these offenders? Is it not their refusal to accept changes in gender dynamics? That a woman is seeking freedom and power out on her own, whether in love, in education, at work or at home?

What it would first take India and its government is, perhaps, an acknowledgement and an understanding of its rape crisis; to accept that the solution does not lie in legislative or governmental measures alone. The state has to recognize and accept that the solution to the crisis deserves a more holistic approach. It has failed incredibly at addressing the longstanding social mores and psychological factors that lead up to such crimes.

While Assam’s decision is a step towards gender equity, focus should also be put on the lack of gender sensitivity and intelligence as well as systemic discrimination. Together with the recruitment of more women, paramount importance should be placed on sensitivity training and awareness initiatives in the police force to make the move a more wholesome and holistic one.


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