As a woman, the most challenging part of my life has been to “stay safe”. Whenever I leave my home, I try to return before the sunset because I am scared. I have spent days adjusting my clothes and avoiding eye contact with people because I fear being harassed. It also becomes difficult for me to ask for help from a stranger and you know why. And this is a behaviour that I developed as a teen girl, from unfortunate experiences, both mine and of other girls around me. Every woman and girl that I know has been subjected to sexual assault at some point in her life. But what happens when those who are meant to protect our rights can’t have a general consensus on what sexual assault exactly means?
During a hearing in the case of sexual assault of a minor girl, the Nagpur bench of Bombay High Court observed that groping a minor without “skin to skin contact” isn’t sexual assault. According to Justice Ganediwala, the offence cannot be termed as sexual assault also because the sexual intent wasn’t clear. The judgement has started a discourse on sexual assault and due process. But again, how many people do understand what that term means, especially to survivors?
Do I have to relegate you with countless incidences of women being touched inappropriately by men? We all have heard those stories. We have been part of them. In happens in public places and vehicles, which are too crowded for us to even be able to identify the perpetrators, let alone face them. Sometimes it happens at offices, where nobody would believe women if they opened up. Unfortunately, for children, the threat of sexual assault is not restricted to public places like parks, malls or movie theatres, it can happen at what we consider to be safe spaces for them- their schools, homes and trusted neighbourhoods.
Groping a person in a manner where there is no “skin to skin” contact cannot be disqualified as a lesser offence. What if a molester pinches a woman’s breast so hard that it leaves her bruised? If a person touches a child’s private body, from above their clothes aren’t their “sexual intent” obvious? And we aren’t even addressing verbal sexual assault on a child that could cause emotional trauma.
India, an unsafe country for women
According to a 2018 report, 99 percent cases of sexual assault go unreported in India. Even if crimes like marital rape and assault are removed, the report says that only 15 percent of sexual assaults, committed by men who are not a survivor’s current husband, are reported in our country. Often in cases of sexual crimes, women refuse to take legal action fearing to lose their ‘honour’ or simply out of shame. Thus, while women spend their entire lives waking up from nightmares, the actual criminals move about freely with no sense of guilt or fear of being punished. Now we have a law that says, “groping without ‘skin-to-skin contact’ does not qualify as sexual assault”. Wow! We just gave more agency to molesters and made the lives of Indian women and girls tougher.
My parents spent their lives teaching me to “be careful”. It is not because they don’t trust me but because the world wants to “protect its daughters,” but never teach the sons to behave. As women, we are asked to carry tools such as scissors, knives or pepper spray which can be used to keep away abusers. We are also told to learn self-defence techniques. Can’t we, for a change, kindly ask men not to assault us?
This statement by Justice Ganediwala can have harmful implications not just for our society, and the way we address crimes against women, but also how the judiciary handles it. No woman or girl should have to feel helpless because she cannot get a perpetrator to serve a sterner sentence, as there was no “skin to skin” contact. No one should feel emboldened to continue with predatory behaviours because there are loopholes that can get them off the hook easily. This can only happen when we begin a long and overdue conversation on what exactly sexual assault means.
The views expressed are the author’s own.