Three pointers to ensure speedy justice in sexual assault cases

Perpetrators in rape cases often enjoy impunity, or take years to be brought to justice as in the Nirbhaya case. We need better policing and judicial systems to change this

This article is part of a special series: Safety of women in Indian cities

It has taken seven years and numerous rounds of review in different courts to get justice and closure in a case that shook the country with its brutality and almost became a metaphor for the spiralling sexual violence that women in India have faced in recent years.

Why has the system failed us despite both POCSO (Protection of Children from Sexual Offences) and POSH laws in place? Is it only the tardy justice system or a total systemic failure?

As per National Crime Records Bureau, as of March 31st, 2018, there are over 1.66 lakh cases of rape and other POCSO Act cases pending in all trial courts, a number which will take several decades to clear.

The singular failure of the justice system, despite the setting up of fast track courts, needs to be addressed on a war footing—whether it is want of more judges or prosecutors, too many vacations, too many appeals, or the mindless number of adjournments? It is all of these, and more.

The implications of delayed justice are often tragic. To mention just two examples, victims threatened by perpetrators released on bail as in the Unnao case, or 85 hearings since 2016 in the case of Sringeri rape incident where an anguished father is still waiting for justice.

Prevention of crimes against women and children is a long road which requires the commitment of entire civil society to address socio-cultural issues, starting with gender sensitisation and understanding of gender equality from schools to workplaces.

However, in the immediate term, protection of and providing justice to victims of sexual assault requires a systemic efficiency that has failed us. So where do we go from here?

First, we need a Minister dedicated to this issue of crimes against women and children, and a Parliament Standing Committee focused on this agenda. This is the main ask of the Bangalore Political Action Committee (B.PAC) and other organisations working on women’s and children’s safety. Both should be held accountable for implementation of the law, and for ensuring speedy justice through close monitoring of the critical metrics on safety across all states.

Second, the police should build trust with the community on this front. This means rapid response to an incident – be it filing FIR, ensuring thorough investigation, filing detailed chargesheet, victim protection and enabling the justice process.

The infrastructure that the police needs – be it CCTVs, higher numbers of women police officers, technology-enabled safety and security systems – should be provided. The Bengaluru City Police (BCP) has been proactive in terms of the Namma 100 helpline, and the Suraksha app which has two lakh downloads . Bengaluru city has over five million women, so many more need to be made aware of the Suraksha app.

BCP also has over 100 Hoysalas (mobile squads) including a handful of Pink Hoysalas that respond within 10 minutes of an incident. They also have PARIHAR, a centre for women and children who need shelter, legal help, rehabilitation etc.

However both Bengaluru and the rest of the country need what was envisaged in the Nirbhaya Fund, namely a One Stop Centre (OSC) for victims, installation of the planned 16,000 CCTVs in Bengaluru, GIS mapping of crime prone areas, adequate street lighting, a portal/registry of sexual offenders, and implementation of the outlined plans for safe city project.

Last October, the state cabinet had identified these areas for action, but implementation has been slow. One other ask is to increase multifold the number of women police officers from the current strength of six percent; the ideal target for Bengaluru is 30 percent.

The Union Ministry for Women and Child Welfare has allocated Rs 667 crores under the Nirbhaya Scheme for Bengaluru city, on a 60:40 split between centre and state. We need quick and effective action by all government departments to implement the plan.

Third, and most important, is a major focus on the setting up and working of Fast Track Special Courts (FTSCs) so that they actually function as envisaged. Last July, the centre had proposed setting up 1023 fast track courts nationally, of which 389 are exclusively for POCSO cases. The states were to give their views on this by December.

The government needs to ensure the FTSCs are permanent in all states. As of now, its non-permanent nature has been a major reason for its ineffective functioning. Lack of judges and prosecutors are often cited as reasons for this.

In Karnataka, no permanent FTSCs is currently functional even though the state had over 5000 sexual assault cases as of March 2018, with a  pendency rate of 87 percent. This only underlines the urgent need for permanent FTSCs.

The Supreme Court has just appointed a two-judge bench to do a reality check and review the progress of fast track courts. New guidelines on how fast these courts should be hearing and delivering justice are an urgent need. We cannot wait for yet another gruesome incident and outcry for action.

We, at B.PAC have extensively worked on the issue of women and child safety over the last five years, under our B.SAFE platform. Our programmes have focused on the implementation of the government’s Child Protection Policy in over 200 government and BBMP schools,  creating awareness of POSH in colleges, capacity building of Internal Complaints Committees and enabling implementation of POSH in workplaces. These programmes have been conducted by our band of BCLIP leaders who are our grassroots champions.

We have worked with PARIHAR to build awareness among self-help groups on women’s safety and empowerment. More recently, we trained over 10,000 BMTC drivers and conductors on various aspects of gender sensitisation, creating awareness on issues of women’s safety as commuters, enabling better response mechanisms in case of incidents and overall ensuring safe rides for  women and children.

Our credo, “A Billion Eyes…it takes all of us”, will continue to drive our B.SAFE agenda in Bengaluru, working alongside key stakeholders on installation of streetlights and CCTVs, and tracking the setting up and functioning of FSTCs.

Nationally, the agenda on women and child safety needs to be on a mission mode.

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