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India’s Marginalized Have Started Believing Violence Is Normal (And That’s A Problem!)

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By Sumit Chaturvedi:

Reporting of violence faced at an individual level is an important step in tackling it. However, there are many barriers – both structural and psychological, to it. These barriers become all the more daunting when the individual at the receiving end belongs to a marginalised socio-economic demographic. A survey conducted by the Swasti Health Resource Centre, a Bangalore based NGO in 2015 in five states namely Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Maharashtra, among three key demographics – women in sex work, homosexual men and transgender people, ascertains this fact.

The survey included 1,09,366 respondents from among women in sex work, 8,594 respondents from among homosexual men and 2,169 respondents from among transgender people. 24,815 or 22.7% of women in sex work faced violence of any kind- physical, sexual or emotional whereas 971 or 44.8% of transgender people and 1,762 or 20.5% of homosexual men reported facing violence. As per the findings of this survey the reporting percentages of violence i.e. percentage of respondents who reported violence from among those who faced violence, are 60%, 77% and 72.5% for women in sex work, transgender people and homosexual men respectively.

Community organisations peopled by community organisation leaders, staffs and helplines are where most of these individuals turn to seek help. The table below shows the percentage of reporting to them to be the highest.Other than the community organisations, violence is also reported to other helplines, peers and wherever applicable, to pimps or ‘madams’. What remains worrying is that the percentage of respondents who report this violence to police is extremely low.

Table 1: Percentage of reporting of violence to different agencies or groups by respondents

Source: Swasti Health Resource Centre

Police remain the most important agency to which violence should be reported, as it can not only provide immediate protection but also through timely intervention can prevent future incidents of violence as well. Why then is the reporting to police low among these demographics? A major reason is that the legal position of the three demographics, i.e. the women in sex work, homosexual men and transgender people is deeply problematic in more ways than one.

In case of women in sex work, the provisions in the Immoral Trafficking Prevention Act, 1956 are ambiguous at best and incriminating at worst. Section 8 of the act penalises sex workers if they draw attention towards themselves, in a conspicuous area, whether in a public place or a private dwelling. This poses an obstacle to women engaged in this trade to report violence to police as they run the risk of being detained or worse harassed themselves. The society also does not consider the rights of a sex worker equal to that another citizen and this is also reflected in the police force as well, preventing women in sex work from approaching them.

A Supreme Court panel last year reportedly recommended deletion of the offence of soliciting under section 8 which it said is highly misused by law enforcement agencies. As reported, the panel set up for looking for measures to ensure better work conditions for sex workers and protection of their rights, as recommended that police must not interfere or take criminal action against adult sex workers ‘participating with consent’. Free from the concerns of being charged themselves, the sex workers might approach law enforcement agencies more readily and report violence against them.

Similarly, with the current legal status of homosexuality as an offence under section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, it becomes difficult for homosexual men to report violence to police out of fear of disclosure of their own identity to the police as well as public at large. Homosexual men and transgenders who are engaged in sex work also face obstacles in reporting violence to the police in fear of themselves being prosecuted. Justice JS Verma led committee’s report on reforms in criminal law published in 2013 also acknowledges the problem of reporting to the police. It suggests that among other things ‘serious misconduct’ on behalf of the police should also include “harassment of a complainant who seeks to register a complaint regarding sexual offence.”

All these institutional and legal factors play a role in determining the attitudes of victims of violence in reporting incidents of violence. The survey fills an important gap in our knowledge about the reasons as to why violence goes unreported. 26% of transgender people and 35.2% of women in sex work who faced violence, did not report it to anyone, out of fear of disclosure of their identities, stigmatised and legally vulnerable as they are. Amongst homosexual men, 39.9% did not report violence to anyone because they felt that it was not needed, making it the most prevalent reason. Not feeling the need to report, was also the second most prevalent response for women in sex work with 26.3% of respondents responding thus. Other reasons were not knowing whom to report or what to do in such a situation or advise against reporting of violence.

Table 2: Reasons for non-reporting of violence

Source: Swasti Health Resource Centre

Irrespective of reporting or not reporting 73.5% of transgender people, 35.5% of homosexual men and 62.2% of women in sex work felt that violence that they faced was normal and nothing can be done about it. This indicates an internalisation of logic of violence which probably stems from the systemic and institutional obstacles that are faced in reporting of violence. The decision to report violence becomes a question of cost-benefit analysis whereby the victims of violence may begin to feel that reporting of violence might be more harmful than beneficial. Lack of reporting leads to lack of action taken against the perpetrators of violence which emboldens them further.

The reasons for not reporting of violence thus flow from both the legal vulnerability as well as the attitude of law enforcement agencies. Lack of reporting to police leads to underreporting of violence in official statistics. Underreporting is often construed as lack of violence against certain key demographics which is dangerous and harmful at a systemic level. Understanding reasons behind non-reporting of violence are important to address the systemic, institutional and behavioural factors that marginalise the vulnerable populations on the one hand and render the violence against them invisible on the other. Non-reporting of violence perpetuates a vicious cycle of violence as what is not addressed is not remedied and it only gives impunity to perpetrators who continue this cycle further.

The article has been written by Mr Sumit Chaturvedi, Consultant, Swasti

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