Earlier this year, a 17-year-old girl was gang raped at the MLA hostel she was staying at. She tried to commit suicide owing to the pressure to withdraw her complaint but was prevented from doing so because of familial intervention. Another recent case talks of a woman from Meerut committing suicide after an act of gang rape, as the Uttar Pradesh police allegedly took no action on her complaint.
What has been the cause of such failure to provide support to survivors of sexual violence and abuse? How do we ensure the realisation of the rights of such survivors of sexual violence and abuse?
Most Indian women have faced sexual violence at some point in their lifetime. Our institutions are collectively failing survivors of sexual violence and are perpetuating a culture that actively trivialises sexual violence and does not provide systemic support to them. Alongside, there is a severe lack of social and institutional support or even an understanding of the needs of survivors of sexual violence with a marked disregard for their well being and mental health.
A particular nexus of power, misplaced social stigma and a lack of support play out in the treatment of survivors of sexual violence in the Indian system. And its impact is grave. For example, according to reports, there has been a rise in cases of suicide, attempted and completed, amongst those who have faced sexual violence in Haryana. But it’s not just one state. A National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report shows that the overall rate of suicide deaths in 2010 rose to 11.4 per 100,000 population; an increase of 5.9% in the number of suicides, from the previous year. The large number of documented cases of suicide in general and also those that occur because of sexual violence and related issues highlight the possibility of quite a high number of unreported cases of suicide as a result of sexual violence or abuse as well. Another study highlights a link between sexual violence and suicides in India amongst the youth. Till recently, suicide was also a punishable offence under the Indian Penal Code, leading to massive underreporting from a fear of further consequences. Not having a correct picture of the numbers takes away from understanding the actual extent of incidence and causes for such suicide-related deaths.
Either the law itself is absent or there is no institutional support to provide any possibility or hope to the survivor. One such example of inferred cases of suicide because of sexual violence could be cases that arise because of marital rape. Recently, the Supreme Court refused to acknowledge marital rape as rape, where the wife was between 15 to 18 years of age, whereas, a nationally representative household survey of women shows that only 2.3% of the sexual violence experienced by women in India was by men other than their husbands. At the same time, reports such as this one from Brookings Institute suggest that the highest rate of suicide is amongst the cohort of housewives. One of the reasons for this is also understood to be the lack of a positive and healthy relationship between partners. Here as well, along with a completely insensitive system, there is a marked absence of law that protects partners from rape within marriage, from their spouse.
Similarly owing to the criminalisation of non-penetrative sex, several forms of sexuality get criminalised and resultant cases of sexual violence are harder to get justice for, especially if the act of sexual violence is perpetrated by a person who has been a relationship with the other person (most sexual violence occurs amongst people known to each other).
Our laws don’t even account for the possibility of sexual violence against other genders. Amongst trans persons as well, sexual violence can oft be perpetrated by or through a person one knows and through authority figures. For example, in 2014, a trans person in Ajmer was allegedly raped by a police officer and two constables – this case is one amongst several which are often unreported.
At other places, the laws conflict each other. For example, while University Grants Commission (UGC) guidelines allow for complaints of sexual violence to be made by persons of all genders, laws under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) only allow for complaints of sexual violence by women. This creates a gap which leaves several survivors of sexual violence without legal recourse outside the set up of their educational institutions.
The lack of a will to implement even existing laws, divided judicial decisions and societal structures are all responsible for causing such deaths. We need to ensure that our prevention strategies take into account demographic differences across our nation. The judiciary, police, government bodies and the civic society are failing survivors of sexual violence through their inability to formulate strong gender just laws and institutions that are sensitised to the needs of sexual violence survivors.
There is an urgent need for sensitisation training and related assessment of members of the judiciary, medical professionals, lawyers, police personnel, government staff and politicians alongside the development tools that build such change into mainstream educative content from primary schooling itself, to build a culture that systemically tears away at the current fabric of rape culture prevalent through the country.