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Gender justice

Gabriel DomínguezAugust 31, 2013

An Indian juvenile court delivered the first conviction in the case of a fatal gang rape last year in New Delhi. But legal expert Indira Jaising says changes in the judiciary are needed to make women feel safer in India.

Anti-rape protesters at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi, India on January 01, 2013. (Photo: IANS/ABACAUSA.COM)
Image: picture alliance/abaca

A juvenile court found the defendant guilty of raping and murdering a 23-year-old woman last December. On Saturday, August 31, the court sentenced the young adult, who was 17 at the time of the attack, to three years in a correctional facility, which includes the time he has already spent in custody.

The defendant was one of six people accused of raping and brutalizing the physiotherapy student, and savagely beating her male partner on a moving bus. The woman died from her injuries two weeks later in a Singapore hospital.

Despite the conviction, Indian legal expert and human rights activist Indira Jaising said in a DW interview that she believes changes in the way the judiciary functions and an effort to deliver justice in a speedy manner are still necessary in order to make women feel safer in India.

DW: What impact has the trial had on Indian society?

Indira Jaising: Looking at the statistics of crime against women post-December 2012, I have found that the number of crimes registered against women has gone up since then. This is a result of two processes: increased reporting due to heightened public awareness, and changes in the law that make it an offense for the police not to record a crime when reported.

Is the verdict likely to lead to any changes in the way Indian men treat women?

As the recent gang rape of a photojournalist in Mumbai shows, attitudes in society have not changed. This indicates that those who commit crimes have not been deterred by the events of December 16, 2012. Our cities remain unsafe, and as larger numbers of women venture out on the streets for work or for any other purpose, they have become vulnerable to sexual abuse. Hence women do not feel safe, and the verdict alone will not instill a feeling of safety - as we have seen, despite the new law, gang rape has been taking place in cities.

Indira Jaising, a senior lawyer in the Indian Supreme Court (Copyright: Indira Jaising)
Jaising says women do not feel safe in Indian citiesImage: Indira Jaising

What will it take to make women feel safer in India?

There have to be corresponding changes in the way the judiciary functions and an effort to deliver justice in a speedy manner. Moreover, we have yet to see an increase in the rate of conviction, as it is the certainty of punishment rather than the severity of it that can instill confidence in the community.

We have seen a very high rate of acquittal, and this issue needs to be addressed as soon as possible - but while insuring a proper investigation and prosecution. Our judges need to be sensitized on issues of gender justice. The entire judicial system needs to be more sensitive to crimes against women, and deliver justice on time. India needs more gender-sensitized judges. Furthermore, the delays in court are enormous, and we all know that justice delayed is justice denied.

The fatal Delhi gang rape last December sparked heated debates about the term "juvenile." What is your view on the demands to lower the legal age of a juvenile from 18 to 16?

I do not view these demands as well-founded. It is natural for the parents of the victim to demand harsher punishment, but justice stands between the victim and the offender.

The criminal justice system cannot be vengeful. Law is not about retribution, and penal jurisprudence has to have a reformative element. A juvenile under the age of 18 cannot be sentenced to life imprisonment. If we do that, we will only be making a hardened criminal out of him.

Setting a specific age for the legal definition of a juvenile may seem arbitrary, but it is generally acknowledged that adolescents below 18 years of age are not fully capable of taking responsibility for their actions.

Moreover, I feel strongly about the fact that in both of these recent cases of gang rape, the rapists were from a very low economic background and deprived in their upbringing of all that makes [dignified] human life possible. To punish them with life imprisonment or death would be a grave violation of human rights - as much as the offense itself. Juveniles are considered capable of reform, and the law provides for that.

What role can society play in stopping violence against women?

We need to understand that we live in a very unequal society which gives birth to a lumpen underclass that lives on crime. It is necessary for us as a society to remedy that situation. Above all, we need to understand that to call ourselves a civilized society, we need to respect women and allow them to live with dignity.

Indira Jaising is a senior lawyer in the Indian Supreme Court and founder of Lawyers Collective, an India-based non-governmental organization that promotes human rights. She became the first woman to be appointed additional solicitor general of India.

The inteview was conducted by Gabriel Domínguez