The 2016 report by the National Crime Records Bureau revealed statistics that shocked not a single woman in the country. It found that 39 crimes against women were reported every hour in India and in the last decade, crimes against women went up by 83%, roughly 2.5 million cases being reported since 2007. This number is scarier when you take into account that most crimes against women go unreported. The report also found that the conviction rate for all these crimes is a mere 22%.
Clearly, India’s justice system isn’t a safe space for women to report their crimes, and for those who do, it’s more likely that justice is not served than the possibility that it is. Another Oxfam study shows that when women were put in positions of power, more crimes against women were reported, and justice for those crimes was swifter. So is the answer to this problem staring us in the face?
Would putting more women in India’s courts help women get justice for the crimes committed against them?
Let’s see what women that are already in the justice system have to say.
According to the National Law University’s enrolment list, 42% of the students enrolled were women, that’s almost half! Clearly, enough women want to take up the profession. When you look at the numbers for practising lawyers too, it’s almost 50-50, so it’s not like law firms won’t hire female graduates. The problem arises when it comes to climbing the law ladder. Very few women are appointed as senior advocates – 1 out of 21 in the Bombay High Court. Only select women are appointed as judges in lower courts – 28%, Delhi High Court has only 9 women judges of total 33. Of the 160 former Supreme Court judges only 5 have been women, and currently, only 1 of the 25 Supreme Courts judges is a woman. Not to mention that India has never had a woman Chief Justice.
Many women think this may be due to the social obligations women have that men don’t, pointing to a broader societal problem rather than a problem in the judiciary.
And some say that the problem of not being promoted is definitely a systemic problem.
But it may be a combination of the two. Since men spend more time in their professional lives, they tend to lobby and woo judges in a way that gets them this preferential treatment.
And even when a woman is appointed, it’s not based on merit or familiarity, it’s tokenism.
This systemic preference to men creates a pyramid of authority as you go higher up in the judiciary. This means that cases that may eventually be landmark judgments – verdicts that could set precedents on how women are treated in the future – are mostly decided by men. This could be incredibly dangerous.
What Meenakshi Arora is talking about can be witnessed in many cases that relate to crimes against women. One example of this is the Suryanelli case that was heard in the Supreme Court. The accused in the rape case were acquitted by the Kerala High Court based on the argument that the minor victim was a ‘child prostitute’. The Supreme Court rejected this and said the case should be looked at again. If there was a woman judge presiding over the case in Kerala, perhaps the verdict may have been more sensitive.
Women senior advocates and judges may be more sensitive to the crimes committed against women, increasing the current conviction rate and doling out harsher punishments to reduce the crime rate in the future.
Supreme Courts Judge and the only man in this article, Justice P. Sathasivam, agrees.
It would take a lot of conscious and intentional changes to really increase the inclusion of women in our current justice system. As Ratna Kapur, the Director of the Centre for Feminist Legal Research puts it, it may even require some positive discrimination.