India struggles to improve justice for women | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 24.01.2013
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India struggles to improve justice for women

India's first court dealing exclusively with crimes against women has been inaugurated in Calcutta. But campaigners think it will do little to change entrenched misogynist attitudes.

A woman who wants to take her rapist to court is submitted to a further abuse, Bijo Francis from the Asian Human Rights Commission said, referring to "the insensitivity of a judicial system that gives scant regard to a woman's rights and feelings."

But, he told DW, she runs an even higher risk: that of being insulted, sexually abused or even raped in the very police station she went to to report her rape. He wouldn't be exaggerating, the human rights lawyer told DW, "if I say that for women police stations are the most unsafe places in India."

Unless, that is, the woman is accompanied by high-ranking politians or journalists, or her family is well-connected within the police force, he added.

"Mere political window dressing"

That is why Francis dismissed India's first court dedicated to crimes against women, which was inaugurated in Calcutta this week, as mere "political window dressing. Even if you have a judge that is extremely sensitive to issues concerning women, the issue has to be investigated by a bunch of police officers who pose additional risks to women."

He said it was almost a "miracle, certainly an exception" for accused perpetrators of crime against women to be convicted.

The High Court Calcutta

Calcutta High Court has introduced first court for women

The court was inaugurated following the rape and murder of a young woman in New Delhi last December that made headlines all over the world. Amidst angry demonstrations and candlelight vigils all over the country, India's Chief Justice called for special courts to deal with crimes against women with female judges and staff.

"One court is not enough," Anuradha Kapoor from the Calcutta-based human rights group Swayam told DW. "The work will pile up and women still won't have access to justice."

Kapoor is not convinced that having female judges is the right solution. "After all, female judges aren't necessarily more sensitized to the issue [of violence and crimes against women]." Rather than having special courts for women, the director of Swayam said, judges all over India should be "sensitized" when it comes to crimes against women.

Biased judges?

According to a report published by Kapoor's organisation, judges are often unconsciously affected by prevailing norms and biases prevalent in a social system where violence against women "is not only rampant but acceptable, condoned and justified."

Women, Francis from the Asian Human Rights Commission confirmed, are often considered as "cattle or property to be owned by others."

Many judges and prosecutors are not immune: One judge interviewed by Swayam was quoted as saying that: "Sometimes the conduct of the wife instigates the husband to beat her."

Youth leaders demanding justice for the 23 yrs old medical student who was gang raped on Dec 16

Indians have taken their anger to the streets

Hoping for wider change

In a step to raise awareness among Calcutta's judges, the city's High Court Chief Justice Arun Mishra called on the members of Calcutta's Bar Association to attend a seminar on "gender and justice atrocities against women," according to local media reports.

Unless societal attitudes change, however, even a better judicial system and sensitized judges will do little to deliver justice, Francis said: Given the stigma attached victims of rape, "an alarming number of women" never even report their case.

But the human rights lawyer pointed to the mass mobilizations across Delhi in recent weeks, saying he hoped that the anger would lead to policy changes - and with them, a change in entrenched attitudes.

"That is where the hope lies."

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