Despite reforms, rape survivors face several roadblocks to justice and support services, from officials unwilling to register complaints to problems accessing healthcare, counselling and legal aid.
Five years after the gangrape and death of Delhi student Jyoti Singh “Nirbhaya”, and despite the legal reforms that followed, rape survivors in India continue to face barriers to justice and support networks, said a recent report.
Public outrage over Singh’s death had led to amendments in laws related to sexual offences. There was a 39% rise in number of rape complaints from 2012 to 2015.
Despite this change, rape survivors still suffer humiliation at police stations and hospitals, concluded the report ‘Everyone Blames Me: Barriers to Justice and Support Services for Sexual Assault Survivors in India’, released by the international non-profit Human Rights Watch (HRW).
To begin with, the police are still unwilling to register complaints, survivors and their families reported. Then women and girls have problems accessing healthcare, counselling and legal aid, the report added.
Medical professionals are still not sensitive to the needs of rape survivors and that there is no legal aid or assistance available for victims of sexual assault. Recent government initiatives such as rape compensation and One Stop Centres too are proving ineffective.
Also read: Widespread Victim Intimidation, Unrealistic Time Frame for Rape Trials in Delhi, Finds Study
“Often, if rape survivors are from economically weaker sections they are pressured by khappanchayats [village caste council] and even the police to ‘settle’ the case if the perpetrator is from a powerful family or caste,” said Jayshree Bajoria, author of the report.
The report details 21 cases – ten of them involving survivors under the age of 18 – in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. These four states report the highest number of rapes in India. The findings of the report are based on interviews with survivors, their family members, lawyers, human rights activists, doctors, forensic experts and government officials.
Police are unaware of or ignore new procedures
“We weren’t able to stay in the village because they [the accused] are ready to kill us and the police did not take any action against them. We also went to the village headman, but he didn’t listen to us either. There’s no one for us”—Barkha (name changed), 22, from Lalitpur, Uttar Pradesh. Local police had refused to file her rape complaint because the main accused is a local leader of the ruling party, even after the courts ordered the police to register a complaint, they took eight months to register the FIR.
As this excerpt from the report shows, the police are apathetic about registering rape cases. Victims reported being pressured to “settle” the case, especially if the alleged perpetrator was affluent or influential.
In the 21 cases that the HRW investigated, the police personnel seemed unaware of or ignored procedures – especially those introduced in 2012 and 2013 to assist women and children.
“Police rarely informed the victims and their families about the provisions related to compensation and free legal aid and often failed to inform child welfare committees,” said the report. “One reason is that government circulars and guidelines do not reach police in village and smaller towns.”
Under the 2013 amendments, action can be taken against police officials who fail to register a rape complaint under section 166A of the Code of Criminal Procedure Act and the officials can face imprisonment up to two years. But in none of the cases investigated by the HRW – and any other it is aware of – has action been taken against a police officer under this section.
Medical professionals lack sensitivity
“The doctor said to my daughter, ‘If they had forced themselves on you, there should have been marks on your body, but you don’t have any. You must have done this of your own free will.’ My daughter even became (sic) more scared after the exam”—Mother of 18 year old Palak (name changed), a Dalit woman who was kidnapped and raped in Madhya Pradesh.
In 2014, the ministry of health and family welfare issued fresh guidelines for the medico-legal care of survivors of sexual violence. These provided medical information and laid down processes which are meant to correct pervasive myths about sexual assault. The guidelines also rejected the “two-finger test” used for vaginal examination to establish the sexual history of the survivor, unless it was “medically indicated”. It also put a stop to the use of “medical” findings to degrade the survivor and question her “character”.
So far, only nine states have adopted the guidelines but medical professionals in even these states do not always follow procedures, the report found. Doctors failed to give survivors adequate information about the tests and lacked sensitivity in dealing with them.
The guidelines standardised the collection of forensic evidence but they failed to provide therapeutic care and counselling to survivors including advice on safe abortion and tests for sexually transmitted diseases. Health professionals are supposed to provide the first line of support to survivors but HRW’s interviews showed that none of them received any counselling or health advice.
No one told us about legal aid: survivors
“The truth is we can’t follow up on these cases because we have no resources. We are asked to speak with the victims and help them but we don’t have expert psychologists. I have read some books but to apply bookish knowledge to practical cases, it’s not the same” – Woman in charge of One Stop Centre
A 1994 Supreme Court ruling says that sexual assault victims should be provided legal assistance and that police stations should keep a list of legal aid options. The Delhi Commission for Women operates rape crisis cells that work in coordination with police stations. But it is rare to find these in other parts of the country, particularly rural areas, the report said.
In none of the 21 cases documented by HRW, did the police inform the victim of their right to seek legal assistance or offer legal aid.
No monitoring or evaluation of support networks
The central and state initiatives to support sexual assault victims are run without any monitoring or evaluation and because of this they remain inadequate or ineffective, HRW said.
A central victim compensation fund created in 2015 from the Rs 3,000-crore Nirbhaya Fund mandated that rape victims receive a minimum Rs 300,000 but each state provides different amounts. Survivors have to either wait a long time to access the money or don’t get it all.
Of the 21 cases HRW studied, only three received compensation.
Also, despite having 151 centres under One Stop Centre Scheme that provide integrated services – police assistance, legal aid and medical counselling – there is little public awareness about them. The various departments involved do not work in coordination either, the study found.
“Reporting rape should not contribute to the victim’s nightmare,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of HRW. “It takes time to change mindsets, but the Indian government should ensure medical counselling and legal support to victims and their families and at the same time do more to sensitise police offices, judicial officials and medical professionals on the proper handling of sexual violence cases.”
Swagata Yadavar is a principal correspondent with IndiaSpend where this article was originally published.