In 1979, the Supreme Court of India described an act of rape as a “randy molestation,” before going on to lament “societal permissiveness on the carnal front,” evinced in its view by “libidinous brahmacharis” and “lascivious dating and mating by unwed students.” Former Chief Justice of India J.S. Verma, former Supreme Court judge Leila Seth, and eminent lawyer Gopal Subramaniam have, this week, helped blow away the toxic shadow that words like these cast over debates on sexual violence in India. Formed in the wake of the gang rape of a Delhi woman last year, their committee has produced a text that will long be invoked in debates over criminal justice in India. Few of their 22 recommendations — on everything from the promulgation of long-pending criminal law amendments to police reform and even street lighting — are in themselves new. However, the report founds itself on the Constitution’s promise of equality and justice for all, bringing the rights of women to the centre-stage of our national project. Not all will back each of the committee’s proposals. For example, the committee’s proposal to disqualify politicians facing certain kinds of criminal cases from standing for election even prior to conviction is controversial. The idea has been resisted by all major parties since 1998. Yet, the foundations have been laid for a forward-looking debate — and meaningful action.
Even as we celebrate this progress, therefore, it is also important to cast an eye on how much work remains ahead. Like all manifestos for change, the report paints in broad strokes — strokes that will need careful filling-in to become a blueprint for real change. Police reform, for example, is key to its thrust. Yet, the report does not tell us precisely what kinds of laws are needed to bring about autonomous — and perhaps even more important, competent — policing. Elsewhere, its recommendations can be accused of a degree of naiveté. It would indeed be a step forward, for example, if all marriages were to be “registered in the presence of a magistrate.” Yet, it is hard to see how a “magistrate will ensure that the marriage has been solemnised without any demand for dowry.” Perhaps most challenging will be giving teeth to recommendations that involve profound social change. It is also true that our society needs children to be “informed and equipped with the knowledge and skills to make responsible decisions about sexuality.” The real problem, though, is we have a society without a responsible idea of either sexuality or equality. India’s recent history is, sadly, littered with exhortations for change which went nowhere. It will take sustained citizen mobilisation to ensure the committee’s work amounts to more than words on paper.
Recycle grey water
UN-Habitat has commenced a new global consultation to reiterate the crucial role of wastewater management in the water cycle and explore policy options for a sustainable future. These consultations have also become necessary to set a future goal for water use, particularly for the years following 2015, which is the target year for the Millennium Development Goals. For India — a severely water-stressed region — this offers an opportunity to reflect on its policies and draw lessons from best practices across the world. The core challenge facing the country is the yawning gap between demand for water and the severely constrained supply. From 813 billion cubic metres — the figure for 2010 — demand is set to reach 1,093 BCM by 2025. Conventional resources alone cannot meet this steep increase. There is a pressing need to explore alternative sources. In this context, policymakers have done well to promote water harvesting to improve supply. But they have utterly failed when it comes to reusing water. Industrial scale recycling would help, but it could be expensive. On the other hand, the often overlooked building level reuse of grey water — wastewater from kitchen sinks, showers and laundry fixtures — is a more effective strategy to pursue.
According to a Centre for Science and Environment estimate in 2011, kitchen use, shower and laundry consume more than 70 per cent of the 920 litres of water supplied per household per day. Building systems seldom trap this wastewater for non-potable use such as toilet flushing, fire fighting and gardening. Instead, they drain it out along with sewage, burdening the system. More important, the precious water is lost. In contrast, countries such as Japan extensively recycle water and successfully tide over their water deficit. Through a combination of strategies involving small treatment plants and closed loop water supply at building level, Japan reuses more than 53 million litres of water every day. In addition, innovative bathroom fixtures conduct used sink water directly to the flush tank of the toilet and save about 22,000 gallons every year. Recycling needs changes to plumbing arrangements in a building, but it is not hard to implement or monitor. What is missing is the will and regulatory framework. Cities such as Nanded have amended their building rules to make wastewater treatment in large buildings compulsory, but such provisions are present more on paper than in practice. If policymakers are serious about increasing water use efficiency through recycling — a goal set by the National Water Mission — buildings should be compelled to meet most of their non-potable water requirement through grey water reuse.
Safety for the last woman
The trauma and eventual death of a young student from Delhi following her brutal gang rape awakened many across the country to demand accountability from the government to establish stronger laws and more effective institutions to prevent violence against women. The need is to ensure greater security and justice for women and girls within a larger framework of a humane, just and equitable society.
All girls and women, to a lesser or greater degree, are unsafe within homes and in public spaces, and the changes in law and institutional systems must address the multiple ways in which they are vulnerable to violence and intimidation. Feminist groups have long developed a consensus blueprint of many measures which need to be adopted for this, including a far more comprehensive definition of sexual violence, and more effective and impartial institutions and processes for registration, investigation and prosecution of offences.
But in designing these solutions, it is important to also remember that whereas every girl or woman is vulnerable to violence, the most vulnerable are women who also suffer other social and economic disadvantages and oppression. These include dalit and adivasi women, women of minority communities, women in conflict situations and disabled women. In these most threatened ranks are also homeless and destitute girls and women, sex workers, and girls trafficked for sex work and domestic labour, domestic workers, and casual women wage workers, rag pickers, beggars, street vendors and others who struggle to survive against a hostile state, among many others.
The recurring sexual assaults and harassment which these vulnerable women face are not isolated incidents, but instead are grim elements of daily living, in which sexualised violence against the powerless is normalised and invisibilised. Sexual molestation is routine most nights for homeless women living on city streets, but these women fear the police the most. Dalit girls and women routinely suffer sexual abuse. Sexual exploitation is common against girls and women with intellectual disability living in institutions. Violence against women with disabilities is often lost in silences, because they are unable and powerless to communicate the acts of violence to which they are subject, and there is none to listen.
There are few protections for human rights of women in conflict areas, when they suffer sexual violence from men in uniform. Women’s bodies are used as battlefields in mass communal violence. Domestic workers have far less protection from sexual assault and harassment in the confines of their employers’ homes. Single women suffer more violence from men, because they are seen as ‘unprotected’; and the criminal justice system is even more indifferent, or actively hostile to single women survivors of violence.
Male aggressors molest and harass with impunity because they are assured that the imbedded patriarchy of institutions of the criminal justice system will protect them. But the police, prosecutors and judges often carry other prejudices in addition to patriarchy, against disadvantaged castes and tribes, minorities, single women, slum dwellers, homeless people, migrants, disabled and mentally ill people, sex workers and sexual minorities, and against the poor in general. Women survivors of violence from these sections are even more likely to face entrenched institutional biases from the criminal justice system.
We would need a new and sensitive imagination of the criminal justice system if it is to secure justice and protection to these ‘last women’ in the shadows of our worlds. A mechanism of acknowledging the special vulnerability of socially disadvantaged survivors of sexual violence should kick in from the very first act of registering the complaint, and the criminal justice system should be held legally accountable to provide adequate legal support and protection at every stage of investigation and trial to ensure that she has equal access to justice. Since her vulnerabilities are multiple, compensation should be multiple as well.
Recognising multiple vulnerabilities would also require condoning delays in registering cases and filing evidence, because the victim facing a hostile state would need to build courage to approach the judicial systems. For instance, in conflict and post-communal violence sites, women sometimes take months or even years to feel confident enough to file their complaints. Protection to security personnel by laws like the Armed Forces Act should be withdrawn, and in any case, even until such laws are in force, they should provide no protection for sexual crimes. In which moral canvas can such acts be seen in the line of duty?
The current policy of clearing the streets of vendors and chasing away other people who occupy public spaces at night makes the street more unsafe for women. A greater presence of people and well-lit public areas at night are essential in reducing the danger to women travelling to and from work as well as homeless women. All departments that deal with disability pension administration should have a clearly marked desk where people can go to report sexual harassment and assault.
Urban homeless women can never be protected from violence, unless the state has a legal duty under the law to ensure that all homeless women, as well as women survivors of violence who leave their homes, are ensured by the state of safe and dignified spaces.
The shelters for women should be open, voluntary, dignified and above all secure. This should form part of any law which aims at safety for women. The numbers of affordable student and working women hostels need to be built to ensure safe accommodation for migrant women.
The first and most urgent claims of these most marginalised and vulnerable women for safety and justice must not be forgotten. In the end, our cities and villages are only as safe as they are for the most disadvantaged and powerless woman and girl, weighed down by social oppression, poverty and disability.