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More rapes reported in India but legal system still biased - expert

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 4 Dec 2013 01:49 PM
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Protesters shout slogans outside a court in New Delhi during the trial of four men accused of raping and murdering a trainee physiotherapist last December. Photo September 11, 2013, REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
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LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Since the fatal gang rape of a student in India a year ago sparked public outrage, more women are coming forward to report rapes, but the legal system remains insensitive and biased against victims, a lawyer and women’s rights activist said on Wednesday.

There were 1,036 cases of rape reported in the Indian capital – where the attack on the 23-year-old happened - this year to August 15, against 433 cases over the same period last year, according to police data.

“The culture of denial and stigma that shrouds the issue of sexual violence was broken. Rape was no longer being seen as a fate worse than death,” Vrinda Grover said of the case that attracted global condemnation.

“’We want justice’ was the loudest cry that came from the women - a call to the legal system for redress and accountability,” Grover told the Trust Women Conference in a debate looking at different ways to prosecute violence against women.

The Indian parliament, pushed into action by unprecedented protests against a culture of impunity widely enjoyed by perpetrators of sexual violence against women in India, amended the law to criminalise previously unaddressed offences such as voyeurism, stalking, disrobing, stripping and parading of women and acid attacks, Grover said.

The lawyer, who contributed to the drafting of those amendments, added that the law has redefined rape to include all forms of non-consensual penetrative sexual acts.

Despite these changes in the law designed to encompass different forms of violence against women, the old problem of impunity persists, Grover said.

Of the 24,923 reported rapes in India in 2012, less than a quarter - 24 percent - of those cases resulted in convictions, according to the National Crimes Records Bureau.

“The legal system ... remains to a great extent unresponsive, insensitive and biased against these women,” Grover said.

“There is a very, very positive change that can be seen ... (but) the systemic impunity for caste-based sexual violence, for sexual violence by security officers, for sexual violence which is taking place against women who are part of political dissent or political movements – there is a silence on that and the international media does not even glance in that direction.”

Grover criticised the way some defence lawyers used character assassination to vilify rape survivors or so-called “two finger” medical examinations to win their cases, saying the focus on a victim’s character or past sexual history was completely unnecessary in determining what happened in the alleged crime.

She also called for long-delayed protocols to be put in place to show police what the law was regarding sexual violence and how to investigate such cases.

Like the other panellists from Britain, the United States and South Africa, Grover spoke of the importance of having specially trained prosecutors to conduct trials relating to sexual violence.

Nazir Afzal, the chief prosecutor for England’s northwest region, credited the use of specialised courts and law enforcers for a rise in conviction rates in gender violence cases.

He said that a decade ago, the conviction rate for domestic abuse cases was around 40-50 percent, but today it’s around 75 percent.

“The progress we’ve made in the last 10 years has been around specialism - so specialist courts, specialist prosecutors, specialist police officers. To get quick progress that’s the route we’ve taken,” Afzal told the conference.

Sanja Bornman, an attorney from South Africa, also shared what worked in her country.

She said South Africa’s Thuthuzela Care Centres had been successful in helping survivors of sexual violence. The Xhosa word means ‘comfort’ and the centres are designed as a one-stop shop for survivors who can report sexual violence and have immediate access to police, counsellors and prosecutors.

 For full coverage of the event, visit TrustWomen conference.

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