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“Kill The Rapist”: Having Worked In Prisons, Why I Think Our Idea Of ‘Justice’ Is Flawed

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By Shruti Singh:

There was a girl who had been arrested and put in judicial custody for causing hurt in an act of robbery. She was a year younger than me and was already married. Her husband was arrested too but got out on bail and began living with his parents in a small suburb of Mumbai. The girl, in the meantime, would ask everyone to send a message to her husband, asking him to meet her. He never came. He even denied ever being married to her. She could not ask for help from her father because he had disowned her for marrying outside their social status. Her parents never visited her either. She would quietly sit on the steps right outside the cell and wait for her name to be called out on the loud speaker for a ‘mulakat’. Every day without fail. Her name was never called out.

There was another woman who was in judicial custody for trafficking a girl from the northern part of India to Maharashtra for prostitution. Her elder son was in a shelter home while the younger one was with her. She gave me a number of a man asking me to tell him to send her some money because her son is falling sick. She did not have any support system outside to help her monetarily so that she could buy basic food items from the canteen. Her son was five years old and was not a favourite among other women. He was rowdy and restless, but he loved his mother. Each time she cried recalling her life in her native village, he would leave everything, come and hug her. After this, he would go back to playing with the other children and would imitate the women during curfew time. He was the oldest child.

There was one more woman who would cry every time she would talk about her husband. She was inside for a crime that her husband had allegedly committed but because he was absconding, she took the blame. “I never wanted to do it but I felt helpless.” Her words still resound with me. There were many more women whom I worked with – each with a compelling story to share, of how they ended up in a prison.

In the previous year, I had the opportunities to first carry out primary data collection and to intern in two different women’s prisons of Mumbai area. And after answering a lot of obnoxious questions about my work and the ‘criminals’, I decided to pen this down, to remind each one of us that those who are inside a prison are humans first.  As a criminal justice social worker, my job was not to treat them as innocent or guilty, my job was to recognise the potential inside them and to make them aware of the same. I was supposed to talk to them, understand their contexts and assist them with anything that they wanted.

All of them came from middle and lower middle class backgrounds, with little or no education. Their children were either put in protective custody or were outside with families or on their own. Each of them had glaring mental health issues, with some showing signs of acute depression. Custodial violence was normalised as the prison staff needed to ‘maintain discipline and order’.

The children inside are visibly malnourished and the whole of prison population has skin problems that change their shapes and sizes as the humidity levels in the air changes. There were women who hadn’t been taken to court in six months, whose lawyers were making under-the-table deals with the public prosecutor, whose families had withdrawn support, and whose only ray of hope were the social workers meeting them every day and attempting to promise a better future.

A lot of times I have been asked about my opinion on offenders and the various other issues revolving around punishment and justice. Time and again, I have maintained that while crime is inevitable, demonising offenders is not the solution. A prison, as an institution, was meant to be a correctional facility where those who came in conflict with the law, would be detained and also be in an environment where these offenders could be corrected.

However, public opinion on this issue has always led the discussion to be dumped in trash and prisons became synonymous with retributive justice and punishment. Kill the rapists! Kill the murderers! But never try to openly discuss who and what created these rapists and murderers. Those who are inside prisons are people you might have come across in your daily life. What separates them from us is the fact that some of them were tired of their circumstances while others gave in to their fit of rage.

indian prison
For representation only. Source: Narinder Nanu/Getty

Indian prisons are overcrowded and the prison reforms are not on anyone’s priority. There is over-representation of Muslims and people from lower economic households. The judiciary is crammed with pending cases that will take years to solve. There is under-staffing, not only in the prisons departments, but also in the police department, which is one reason why a lot of under-trial prisoners are unable to be presented in front of the judge due to lack of police escorts. The general outlook of people towards prisoners is that of disgust and anger, completely ignoring that the offenders were as much part of the society as the law-abiding citizens. The shift from retributive justice to rehabilitative justice will not happen unless each of us understands the reason behind a certain kind of crime. While interacting with the jailer of the prison I interned in, I touched upon the issue of recidivism. What he said was etched in my memory. He said, “When a prisoner is released, it is the responsibility of her family, the community and the larger society to ensure that she is reintegrated with them. If that person commits a similar crime again, then you need to question how you failed as a society to provide the safety net to her that compelled her to commit the crime again.”

My point for writing this down is not to support offenders in what they did. Neither am I saying that there should not be strict punishments. Instead, my point is to humanise those who commit crimes. My point is to start a dialogue where we can have a healthy discussion on how our justice systems have failed time and again to rehabilitate them and still cry foul over repeated crimes. It is to understand what compels an individual to go against the law, knowing very well that he/she could be punished. What I saw in each of the 50 women undertrials that I worked with was immense potential to contribute to their immediate surroundings. Each of them had a spark in them, waiting to be encouraged. There is a need for more people to study the criminal justice system, work within it and engage with those who come in contact with it – those who need to be represented.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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