Dorothy Kamal’s first call of the week came on Wednesday night: A teenager, raped months ago by her family’s elderly tenant, turned up at a Delhi hospital miscarrying the pregnancy that resulted from the assault. Doctors called police, and the police in turn called Ms. Kamal, an advocate for survivors of sexual assault.
Ms. Kamal couldn’t head out on the case right away because the Delhi Commission for Women – which manages the rape crisis service – forbids counsellors from going out at night, lest they be attacked themselves. But come morning, she went to the young woman’s hospital bedside and explained how pressing rape charges works.
But the matronly Ms. Kamal is still not optimistic about the process, even as the police arrested six men within a day of their alleged roles in a gruesome rape and murder of a student. The police, the doctors who collect medical evidence and the legal system all stand ready to betray a woman, said Ms. Kamal, and the fight for justice can be just as hard as living through a rape.
“It’s safer for them to not report than it is to report – why would somebody want to go out and report if they will not be believed or they will be humiliated or simply told you are responsible for this or you are a woman of loose character?” said Anuja Gupta, who heads RAHI, a foundation supporting women assaulted by members of their family. The victims her team accompanies to police routinely hear all that and more, she said.
By mid-afternoon, there was another call. A young woman called the city’s rape hotline to report an assault; she lives in Ms. Kamal’s area of South Delhi, and so police called her to accompany the victim to give a statement at a drafty, dingy local station. “I say, ‘Now you just have to be strong,’ ” Ms. Kamal said, preparing to head from her cramped office back out into the city streets.
An unprecedented conversation about sexual violence, and how to respond to it, is under way in India, as five of six men accused in a brutal December rape and murder were brought to court this week. But there are few signs of improvement: an under-resourced police service filled with men who don’t take rape seriously; a ramshackle public-health service that treats victims callously; a badly overburdened legal system; a society where many rape victims are forced to calculate that compensation from attackers will yield more justice than going to the courts: “It will take a lifetime” to change all that, Ms. Gupta said.
Delhi has recently been labelled by many of its enraged female citizens the “rape capital of the world.” The gruesome Dec. 16 rape of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student on the bus she caught home from the movies with a friend, and her subsequent death from her injuries, ignited huge public demonstrations. Police responded by sealing off the heart of the capital and using tear gas and water cannons on the protesters – further embittering Delhi’s women. Safety, and the lack of it, dominates television news shows and bus-stop conversations.
Something about this case – about the sense of impunity that cloaked the six men who allegedly lured her on to the bus, about this young woman from an impoverished village whose family poured their resources into helping her achieve her dreams, who was relishing life as a newly independent professional in a bustling city – has fixated the country and has women from every class and community in the capital talking about the often-violent, misogynist treatment they face.
Yet Delhi compares favourably to capitals around the world in the number of assaults on women, as the police officer in charge of the city’s special unit for women and children points out. And compared with the rest of India, Delhi has some of the best policing and rape response. Six per cent of its police force is female officers (compared to a national average of 3 per cent) and female police interview every woman reporting rape. One in 10 rapes in the capital is reported, police estimate, compared to an average of 1 in 100 in the more rural states of north India – because police are accessible and responsive, said Suman Nalwa, an additional deputy commissioner.
Police arrested the six men just 16 hours after the bus attack, and five of the six were produced in court this week and formally charged with rape and murder. Their case is expected to be heard before a fast-track court within a few weeks. (The sixth accused claims to be a minor and his case may be handled by the considerably more lenient juvenile justice system once his age is established.)
Police often believe that women out after midnight must be prostitutes, said Ranjana Kumari, who runs the Centre for Social Research, a leading organization in the rape crisis field that employs Ms. Kamal. And women assaulted by their husbands are told “what do you expect” since they clearly weren’t meeting his needs, she said.
In an interview in her office off a quiet courtyard, deputy commissioner Nalwa rejected that officers on her force might behave this way, calling the horror stories “more of a drawing-room discussion. … I can’t believe a police officer believes that if a woman is out with a boyfriend then she deserves it.”
Minutes later, however, she pointed out that the city draws its new police recruits from villages in the neighbouring states. “They come with that mindset that women have to be treated a certain way.They are shocked to see a woman wear pants, let alone skirts. They’re bound to make a comment – that’s personal, you can’t put that on the department.”
Delhi’s dedicated rape reporting phone line means that any rape reported is recorded, but women who go in person to a station can be “shooed away” by a duty officer who does not consider rape a serious crime, she said.
While the bus attack has focused attention on rape by strangers, the reality is that 96 per cent of women who report rape in Delhi know their attacker, deputy commissioner Nalwa said. The advocates say this leads police to encourage “deals” – either because they can expect a payoff from the accused if they get the victim to drop charges, or because they genuinely believe a family’s “honour” and well-being will be better served by keeping the case out of the courts. An accused may be encouraged to make a financial payment to the victim’s family in compensation – or the woman may face immense family pressure not to proceed, Ms. Kamal said.
While she added that police behaviour has improved since gender-sensitivity training began two years ago – an initiative deputy commissioner Nalwa pushed – doctors who collect forensic evidence can be rude, she said. She overheard one gynecologist, irritated at having to prepare a rape-evidence kit, tell a rape survivor, “You had your fun and now all of us have to pay for it.”
Both the counsellor and the police officer identified the court system as the place where the search for justice really breaks down. A Delhi criminal court hears 100 cases in a day, and a single prosecutor may be handling at least that many files. Delhi women are demanding that rape cases get fast-tracked, but Ms. Kumari noted that the country has only two forensic labs, and it can take at least a year to process a DNA sample. Ms. Kamal said she has supported victims who reported rape as children and became adults before they saw their attacker on trial.
The maximum sentence for rape is seven years; Ms. Kamal said that in the cases she has seen earn convictions, the sentence was usually three to four years.
Delhi’s 27-per-cent conviction rate for men charged with rape compares roughly with that of Scandinavia, but the difference lies in the number of cases reported.
Deputy commissioner Nalwa says her force needs to hire more women, upgrade their skills, and enforce a zero-tolerance policy for crimes against women. But improvements are visible, she said.
“This is a safe city for women. We’re not in an ideal society – accidents will happen. No society can say it is crime-free. But given the social fabric we have, I would not say we’re faring too badly.”