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Rise in rapes blamed on ineffective justice system

Strong stigma and police insensitivity keep victims from pursuing cases, which can take decades to wind through courts.

NEW DELHI // Rape cases in India have increased more than 10 per cent over the past five years, with weak laws, a lax justice system and insensitive policing blamed for the growing number. The figures, which were compiled by the National Crime Record Bureau for 2007, were presented in the upper house of parliament last week.

They show that in 2007, police across India registered 20,737 cases of rape compared to 19,384 in 2006. In the capital, New Delhi, there were 589 cases in 2007 and 623 in 2006. The states with the highest number of cases were Madhya Pradesh (3,010) and West Bengal (2,106). Women's rights groups and commentators have argued that the number of cases was actually much higher, but that most victims are afraid to report a rape due to the social stigma attached to a sexual assault and police apathy towards registering or investigating such cases.

Pallavi Sharma (not her real name), 23, was raped by her landlord in Ghaziabad, a town neighbouring New Delhi in November 2007. She never told her family about it and has tried to move on. She has a job with a private firm in New Delhi. But even now, she is hesitant about narrating the events that led to the assault. "My landlord barged into my room and forced himself on me. I tried to run but he overpowered me," she said.

After the incident, initially she was determined to fight for justice and was supported by her friends, but the momentum was short lived. "We went to the police station the next day to file a complaint but the policemen there refused," said Ms Sharma, who added that the police asked her inappropriate questions about the attack as well as about her sex life. After a week, Ms Sharma managed to file a case with the help of some friends and a local non-governmental group. Police launched an investigation, but a week later the landlord was let off.

"He was finally detained and police sent me for medical examinations at the government hospital. However, after a lapse of nine days, the reports were inconclusive on the act of rape. He was let off," said Ms Sharma. Her friends, who at one time had encouraged her to fight for her rights, then advised her to forget it and move on. "They felt that nothing could be done, that [the suspect] would manage to get away with the crime anyway, and I wanted to live with honour. So I quit," she said.

Ajay Raj Sharma, a former police commissioner in New Delhi, agreed that sometimes the police were insensitive towards rape victims during their investigation. "There is a need to sensitise the police force in dealing with such cases. We also need a specialised force for dealing with rape cases," he said. However, little has been done. Outrage over women's treatment hit the headlines last week when an Indian television station aired a mobile phone recording of a woman being stripped and molested in broad daylight by a group of men her husband had just had an argument with in Patna, the capital of Bihar.

The video showed dozens of bystanders, including police, watching as the men first beat the woman's husband and then turned their attention to her. Although the police seen standing around were later suspended from their jobs, the incident provoked harsh criticism from women's rights groups, who blamed such police inaction and ineffective laws, for emboldening criminals. According to reports from media and NGOs, not all rape cases are reported due to women's concerns that they will not be able to find a husband afterwards, and the lengthy court proceedings.

Ranjana Kumari, a women's rights activist and director of the Center for Social Research, said that although the situation had improved in urban areas, people in the countryside were still reluctant to speak publicly about rape. Across India, only about one in 10 rape cases is reported, according to the centre. "The government [NCRB] data is from urban areas, which constitutes 20 per cent of the Indian population. In rural areas we still face the problem of people not reporting such crimes to police or media," she said.

There have been demands for India's rape laws to be strengthened, with some groups calling for the death penalty for convicted rapists. The statistics prove that current laws, which makes rape punishable by a 10-year sentence at most, are not a deterrent. According to NCRB data, the conviction rate for rape cases is 26 per cent. Legal experts say this is due to lengthy, drawn-out court cases, which can last for decades.

"Even if the case is reported, the trial of rape cases is very long and intimidation of the victim is quite common. Most of the victims drop the charges or deny being raped," said Abhijeet Singh, a lawyer based in New Delhi. "As per the Indian law, the onus is on the victim, who has to prove that she has been raped, which is always a daunting task." Earlier this week, Tapas Pal, a parliamentarian from West Bengal, said he supported villagers taking the law into their own hands and killing rapists after four women in his constituency were raped and police were unable to apprehend the suspects.

sjalees@thenational.ae

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