• Opinion
  • July 28, 2019
  • 8 minutes
  • 1

Our laws are failing victims of sexual violence

Opinion: We need to trust and protect the survivors, not give them the cold shoulder

This article was written by Shruti Kapoor, founder of Sayfty, an NGO focussed on preventing gender based violence. For more like this, see our gender equality newsfeed.


I am currently working on a Survivor Toolkit for victims of gender-based violence in India. 

As part of this research, I have been interviewing police officials of various ranks. While on paper and in these interviews, everyone understands their role and responsibilities, things on the ground for survivors of gender-based violence are much different. 

Take for example the recent case in India, where the Mumbai police exonerated Bollywood actor Nana Patekar. 

He was facing allegations of harassment made by actress Tanushree Dutta. Despite video footage of the actress facing sexual harassment in the presence of multiple witnesses, the case was dismissed on the grounds that there wasn’t sufficient evidence to convict him. 

The perpetrator went scott-free, and the accuser lost her career in Bollywood, was shamed, and called a liar. She claimed that the police hadn’t undertaken a fair investigation and were influenced by Nana Patekar. An incident that once again reduced people’s faith in the police system in India. 

We saw something similar In the United States last year when Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified against Judge Brett Kavanaugh in the hearings for his supreme court nomination, and claimed he had sexually assaulted her 36 years earlier. What’s interesting about these two cases are, that both these women put themselves out there for a larger cause – should survivors speak up? And both sparked a movement. 

Trusting survivors

In the case of Dr. Ford, the #WhyIDidntReport hashtag exploded on social media. 

Thousands of women who had never gone public with their own sexual assault were now opening up. They began calling into C-Span to tell their own stories of harassment and rape. 

In the case of Tanushree Dutta, she led the way for India’s #MeToo movement. Her publicly speaking up opened the floodgates to hundreds of stories of sexual harassment at workplace, especially in media. 

Unfortunately, in both cases the victims were not believed by the legal system. 

Their truths were questioned and falsified and the alleged perpetrators faced no consequences. 

Apart from the social stigma and shame that a survivor of gender-based violence experiences, when the legal and judicial system fails them too, I ask, are social media movements like the #MeToo a better way to demand justice? Why should a survivor go through the legal process at all? 

From a policy perspective what we need is zero tolerance against sexual harassment at all levels, from the police force to the judiciary, so that survivors have the trust and belief that if and when they choose to come forward with their sexual abuse cases, there will be an efficient, transparent and fair investigation.

Governments should step up

So, what are some measures the government can take to protect women from abuse? 

An excellent example is Sweden’s affirmative consent law, which says sex without consent is rape. 

This law came into effect after the 2013 court’s decision to acquit three young men accused of raping a 15 year old girls with a wine bottle until she bled. 

The passing of this law means that more rape cases can be prosecuted. Sex with someone who does not voluntarily participate will be illegal. Germany and the US state of California have also passed consent-based reforms to their legislation. Unfortunately, a majority of European countries have yet to amend their legal definition of rape. 

Unlike Sweden, when a similar case happened in Spain where the court rejected charges of sexual assault against five men in favor of lesser charge of sexual abuse, the country retaliated with a groundswell of support to change the law relating to rape and sexual abuse. However, it did not lead to any reforms in the law. It is said that in the case of Sweden, the #MeToo movement played a huge role in bringing the reform. 

According to the UN Women, Here are some ways in which governments around the world have committed to end violence against women: 

“The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan commits to ensuring the laws of the country are not misapplied and only those found guilty of defined crimes are punished, and that Government actors, including police and prosecutors, are held responsible for the correct application of laws.”

The Australian Government is committed to a zero tolerance approach to domestic violence and sexual abuse, under the current National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children

“Canada takes national measures to combat human trafficking, violence against aboriginal and immigrant women, passes new laws and engages men and boys in prevention efforts”

Surviving the system

A survivor of violence often starts his/her journey by seeking help through a specific organization like an NGO or women’s protection centre. What ensues thereafter largely depends on the people and support institutions involved in each step of the way. 

While “trusting that the survivors are telling the truth” can clash with our other value of assuming innocence until proven guilty, survivors need our support. They need an effective support system that can provide a comprehensive set of services ranging from medical care to safe accommodation, counseling, legal advice, police protection and economic empowerment. In our society, questions such as “what were you wearing”, “why did you go there”, “why did you consume alcohol” and statements like “boys will be boys” and “don’t tell anyone about it” can further silence a survivor’s voice. 

What we need is an efficient and transparent system that will address crimes against women. 

What we need are judgment-free people and spaces that will hear survivors and support them in understanding and dealing with their experience. It’s not easy but let’s first begin by believing survivors. 

By coming out openly in public, most survivors have more to lose than gain. So let’s trust and support them. — Shruti Kapoor

(Picture credit: Pixabay)

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