Wednesday, 26 December 2012

My Letter to the Justice Verma Commission

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Dear Justice Verma and the Commission,

As a woman who has been harassed on the streets several times over, here are my suggestions that I believe will improve the situation.

Crime, Punishment and Reform: Rape must be made a non-bailable offense. Penalty for the rapist must be 25 to life and if paroled the victims must be informed. Better yet, make it non-parolable especially for those who commit the most gruesome of these acts. The criminal's (after being convicted) details must be recorded in a national data base. If paroled, these criminals will have to report to the parole officer. If the parole officer slacks in their work, they will be held accountable. The approximate whereabouts of the parolees must be known to someone in authority at all times. This will help stop repeat offenders like the one who raped and killed a woman in Kerala in February.

A well linked Data Base of Criminals of sexual offenders must be maintained within the police force. All applicants to police positions, paramedics, fire fighters, teachers, post-offices, must be cross-checked with this list to make sure there are no major cases pending against them or that they have not been convicted of any major crimes.

Education and Training of the Law Enforcement Agencies: 
The training course for future police officers in India must include a course on dealing with rape victims and harassment victims. The course must include what needs to be done immediately including taking medical evidence, other evidence as well as treating the accuser with respect and not as a perpetrator.
This course needs to run through the entire police curriculum, not one elective in one semester.

Special Victims Units in Police Force: It is probably time to set up special victims units within the police force to deal specifically with cases of sexual assault and street harassment based on sexual orientation or gender. Sensitive police officers-in-training need to be selected and then further trained specifically to serve in these units. Psychologists need to be on these forces to evaluate the condition of the victims as well as to provide necessary help in interrogation of the suspect when apprehended. Very hardworking, talented, sincere students in the police academy should be selected to undergo training in countries where these kinds of units have been successfully deployed. Their training should be monitored and outcomes clearly defined and measured upon return. Clearly we need a very good education board for police academy just as we need for the rest of education system in the country.

Public Awareness Campaign: A campaign like ``Mera Bharat Mahaan" in the 80s must be in place on all TV and radio channels that emphasizes the right to safety for all citizens including women and elderly on the streets. Every village, every corner, every city of India must hear these messages. Please don't use the usual "Maa/Behan" argument, because that leaves out those who are orphans or those who have no male members in the immediate family and robs a wholly functional woman of their completeness. The right to safely negotiating the streets of India and contributing materially to its progress, is the right of every citizen whether or not they have living brothers/fathers/male cousins/husbands. These messages must be painted on auto-rickshaws, taxi cabs, buses and trains (just like the ones in place now for family planning).

As part of the public awareness campaign a plan must be conveyed to the public on how to report a suspected crime safely and effectively. Make it safe for people to report these crimes without feeling like they will be stuck in messy cases themselves.

Safety on the Streets and Public Transportation: Let us make it easier for people to report crimes being committed on other people by not treating them as criminals themselves.  Limit availability of acid to people. How are these criminals still able to obtain acid to throw at people on the streets to intimidate them? Investigate this and find ways to make it difficult for people to gain access to acids. Create a public awareness campaign brochure on what to do if you are under acid attack to neutralize it immediately. Teach it to the children and the youth and the elderly and everyone. Presumably it will have to be someone else who does that for the victim, so train them to use it.

Trains already have chains that can be pulled in times of emergency. But this did not happen in the case of Soumya from Kerala in Feb 2011. Why? This is a failure of public education and a fear of police rather than the infrastructure. But one does wonder how often these chains are actually tested? Who works to make sure that these things will actually work when needed? There needs to be similar things in bus stops and train stations everywhere. Things that raise loud alarms and sends a signal to the local police stations. Of course a fine for the those who abuse it will have to be instituted. There will always be crank callers who will abuse it and the police will be inconvenienced, but its a small price to pay for the larger safety issue.

Public Infrastructure: Street lights and 100 numbers are essential. The 100 numbers must be always operational. Police force must be trained to be on the scene of crime within in a few minutes of the call. Sure this means that there will have to be a huge increase in the police force. But isn't unemployment one of the other problems we face? Why not hold a strong national advertising campaign to recruit the best minds into the force early and provide them with sensitive training to serve on the police force? Surely there is enough talent out there to make this feasible. It may take a few years to see the outcome, but better late than never! If public infrastructure is getting in the way of speedy police assistance think about setting up more police response units or bettering the streets and traffic.

Public Alert System
: It is essential to get the word and likeness of the suspects out as soon as possible. We need to evolve a system that will quickly gather up visual description of the suspects to send out an alert within say 24 hours. The sooner we get the public looking for these people, the faster we will find them. If the victim is reported missing, then and only then, should the likeness of the victim be sent out to all media that can be used to help find the victim.

Electoral Reforms: No more rapists and suspected rapists on the ballots or serving in any public office. No more insensitive comments on who gets raped and who does not. No one asks for rape. No one. Not even those who trade sex for money. So, let's never blame the victim for this crime. What separates a civilized society from a jungle is that in a civilized society everyone can expect a modicum of safety and respect whether they are frail or ill or weak or poor or marginalized. Everyone deserves to feel safe.

Language and the Crime
: Language is a very important tool that can mold society's behavior. References to rape as "a violation of a woman's modesty" is too archaic and useless in today's context.  It is time to look at such verbiage and make necessary changes. Stop referring to street harassment as eve teasing. Teasing implies a playful activity. What goes on under the name of eve teasing is NOT playful, too violent, too invasive, too intimidating. Call it what it is: it is harassment. There is probably a lot more to be done even within the definition of what rape is. Including defining rape inside a marriage.

Entertainment and Media: Hefty fines must be imposed on TV and news reporters/channels who sensationalize these stories. For example, no need to post the pictures of the victim unless they are missing. No one needs to know how the victim looked. Any editorial or other piece of reporting that hints that it was the victim/survivor's clothes, profession that "provoked" the attack must be made to pay huge fines and undergo a sensitization program of social work.

Educating the Future Indians: Every school must have an awareness period in the curriculum. The CBSE schools had (probably still do) what is called Socially Useful Productive Work (SUPW) classes in place, which were used in these schools as either place holders for special classes or a way to teach knitting and stitching to the girls and electric circuitry for boys. Time to use these classes for creating public awareness in the minds of these young children. Use age appropriate methods to teach them to be respectful to all people irrespective of gender and sexual orientation. Use these classes as a time for moderated discussion among the pupils to help them air out their inner most fears and phobias and help them understand where they come from and why this is important. Specially trained teachers are needed for these courses, just as they are needed for courses in Physics and Chemistry.

Educating the Educators: Every school teacher needs to undergo training on how to teach and how to be unbiased when they teach in class. This is sorely lacking in the current context and is not to be underestimated. This training could be incorporated in the equivalent of BT degrees. This will prevent non-verbalized bias from creeping into the classrooms and will help keep impressionable youngsters from internalizing these biases from young age. Examples of non-verbal bias includes teachers asking a question and then unconsciously turning to the "boys side" to wait for answers. This sends a message that "girls" couldn't possibly have answers to these questions.

Auxiliary Public Campaign: It is essential for the infrastructure to function properly as intended if we are to really let police, fire fighters and ambulances to get to the site of crime/disaster. I am sure everyone has seen ambulances with sirens blaring and not one vehicle on the street moves to make way. It is time that we all understand the need to follow simple traffic rules. Those lights are not there for decoration. Please aim at starting a public campaign on this issue as well.

I am sure there are more that one can think of. But here is a start.

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