India sees push for police reform after rape outcry


January 28, 2013

Highly publicized gang rapes in India have prompted nationwide protests over how police handle sexual assault cases. In many instances, police themselves have been shown to display the same sexist prejudices that often lead to these assaults.

January 28, 2013

Highly publicized gang rapes in India have prompted nationwide protests over how police handle sexual assault cases. In many instances, police themselves have been shown to display the same sexist prejudices that often lead to these assaults.

A gang rape victim is pictured as she speaks to AFP at her home in Hisar, Haryana, on January 23, 2013

Sixteen-year-old Seenu was walking to her grandmother's house along a quiet street in northern India when a group of men dragged her into a car, took her to a secluded field and raped her in turns.

They filmed the act on their mobile phones and forced a pill into her mouth. She woke up an hour later, naked, bloodied, disoriented. The sun was just beginning to set as she put on her jeans and made her way back home.

When her father — a gardener belonging to the "untouchable" or Dalit community which lies at the bottom of India's caste system — found out what had happened to his only daughter, he killed himself.

Over the days that followed, Seenu (not her real name) and her mother made several trips to the nearest police station, defying threats from her upper-caste attackers, some of whom she knew.

Finally, when the Dalit community in her village held public protests and piled pressure on the police, the first arrest was made — two weeks after the gang rape. Since then, seven more men have been arrested.

Now living at her grandmother's home with six police officers as protection ahead of a court appearance next month, Seenu told AFP that rape victims like herself have problems reporting the crime "because police don't respect them".

"It makes me so angry. Why don't the police listen? Why don't they do their job? Why do they have to humiliate the girl or treat her like it's her fault she got raped?" she said, speaking softly so the officers did not overhear.

The gruesome gang rape and murder of a student in New Delhi on December 16 last year prompted nationwide protests and a public outcry over how police handle sexual assault cases.

A beleaguered central government announced several safety measures earlier this month, including more nighttime patrols by police in Delhi and the presence of at least a dozen female officers at every police station.

India suffers from a massive shortfall in the number of police on duty, currently employing only 129 officers per 100,000 people, according to data published in 2010 by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.

This compares to 227 officers per 100,000 people in the United States.

Also, in many cases police have been found displaying the same sexist prejudices prevalent in Indian society, leading them sometimes to encourage rape survivors to marry their attackers.

Last week, a judge at a Delhi court ordered police to pay 25,000 rupees ($470) as compensation to a 13-year-old rape survivor, for refusing to file a complaint and pushing her to settle the case with the alleged rapist.

J.S. Verma, a former chief justice of India heading a government commission looking into sex crime, lambasted the police on Wednesday for their apathy and "low and skewed priority of dealing with complaints of sexual assault".

In his report, Verma also called for an end to the so-called "two finger test", a practice decried as demeaning and flawed in which doctors attempt to determine if a rape victim is sexually active.

Stung by the hail of criticism, police officials in Delhi recently revived a "gender sensitization" program that originally ran from 2008-2011, enrolling all personnel on the course in a bid to improve their handling of women.

Delhi Police Commissioner Neeraj Kumar promised that the force had been "jolted," leading it to "look at offences against women in a totally different way".

The government's plans to improve policing also include measures to recruit more women, who make up just 6.5 percent of the force, according to figures in the National Crime Records Bureau.

Maurice Nagar police station could be a model for the future. Located near a sprawling university campus, the recruitment of women has long been a priority and a female officer is required to be present at all hours.

The khaki-clad guards outside are female, the officer who registers complaints is female and many of the officers on duty, zipping in and out of traffic on motorbikes are female.

But even here an officer, Nazma Khan, dismisses the notion that police reform is a panacea.

"These crimes happen because of people with a messed-up mentality, who are everywhere," she told AFP.

"If we want to change the mentality then it has to change at school level, at homes, in the family, otherwise recruitment (of police) will not make a difference," she added.

To Seenu, the Dalit teenager whose parents cast off centuries of prejudice and oppression to educate their daughter and raise her to dream of someday becoming a doctor, such arguments offer no consolation.

"If the police don't change, girls like me will never get justice and soon enough, people will just stop expecting any justice in India."

Courtesy: AFP


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