#She Speaks Up

Why Does The Justice System Continue To Fail Women?

Hathras Case Verdict
Last week, a local court acquitted three of the four men accused of the rape and murder of a Dalit woman in 2020. The rape, known worldwide as the Hathras rape after the district in Uttar Pradesh where the victim was assaulted, caused outrage the world over after the police allegedly cremated her body without the family’s consent.

Protests all over India ensued, but could not influence the court. All four accused belong to the upper castes, while the victim was from a lower caste.

The accused had seemingly gashed the 19-year-old victim’s tongue, but she was still able to give her statement to the police. She stated she was gang-raped, strangled and named her four perpetrators in her ‘dying declaration’ to a magistrate. She didn’t recover from her brutal injuries and died in a Delhi hospital a fortnight after the rape.

Despite the gruesome nature of the crime (although why must crimes be heinous in order for them to warrant conviction?) three of the accused have been acquitted.

The Hathras case highlights the atrocities and sexual violence India’s 80 million Dalit women face, but are perhaps marginally worse than women of all castes in India. Gender-based and domestic violence in India has increased by 50 per cent in the last two decades in India. Did you know that unless a woman’s bones are broken in an assault, the police will only file a non-cognizable report, and not a First Information Report? This means, the complaint is only a matter of record, and not eligible for a trial.

Hathras case verdict and why it fails women

The rates of conviction for crimes against women in India have dropped to 26.5 per cent in 2021, from almost 30 per cent in 2020. Domestic violence, or even violence against a woman by a male member of her family, is long, arduous, expensive and often faults the victim even by a hostile police station. More than 31,000 women reported rape in 2021, but it is estimated that almost as many or more rapes go unreported.

With prejudices in society and gaping lacunae in the system, are women being discouraged to seek legal assistance? Yes.

I think women in western countries do not have it much better. Rape survivors and victims of violence face legal hurdles almost everywhere. The rampant online bullying of Amber Heard during the trial against her former husband Johnny Depp is heartbreaking. She also ended up losing his defamation case against her.

I’m not sure many outside the USA have heard of Amanda Nguyen. The 32-year-old was named Time Woman of the Year in 2022 and was a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. In 2013, as a student at Harvard, Nguyen was raped on campus. She chose not to press charges immediately as she did not have the financial resources for the trial. Once she was informed by the Massachusetts police she had a statute of limitation up to 15 years, she decided she would press charges when she could afford to. She undertook her rape test kit but was informed it would be destroyed after six months, and she would have to pay and extend its legal shelf life every six months.

“It’s up to everybody to make their own choice,” she says. “This six-month rule really hurts my chances of pressing charges because it destroys one of the most critical pieces of evidence.”

Nguyen became a civil rights activist and founded a nonprofit called Rise that aimed to protect sexual assault and rape survivors. She aimed to pass a Sexual Assault Survivor Bill of Rights in all 50 states of the USA as well as the United Nations General Assembly. She even directed a film called ‘Everything I Ever Wanted to Tell My Daughter About Men’, which won Best Feature at the 2022 Cannes Independent Film Festival.

In 2021, Nguyen cleverly used New York Fashion Week to swing the vote in the United Nations. In a show called “What Were You Wearing?”, a question asked of rape victims as well as fashion show guests too.

Rape survivors walked the runway in outfits they were raped in, in an effort to both reclaim as well as rebuke the stigma around their choice of clothing. All the diplomats from the UN, who live in New York were invited, and all of them attended. A year later, they would pass the resolution.

I absolutely love the heroism shown by Nguyen in advocating survivor rights and helping them deal with the trauma. However, it must be noted, heroes like her are just a handful. The unfortunate reality is that like Nguyen, several thousand women are left without justice in a system where the laws are written to actually protect them.

Views expressed by the author are their own

Suggested Reading: Hathras Gangrape Verdict: When Will Women Gain Freedom From Brahmanical Patriarchy?