Why is it still almost impossible for Indian rape survivors to get justice?

Is anyone listening?
Is anyone listening?
Image: EPA-EFE/Sanjeev Gupta
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It’s been nearly five years since the brutal gang rape of a woman on a bus in New Delhi shocked India. In the weeks that followed, thousands took to the streets in protest, and the Indian government even adopted more stringent legislation to prevent such violence against women in the future.

But little has really changed on the ground, according to a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), released on Nov. 08. Through field research in the states of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan, which routinely record the highest number of rape cases in the country, HRW identified how untrained police officials, insensitive health workers, and a dire lack of legal support combine to make it almost impossible for justice to be served.

“Five years ago, Indians shocked by the brutality of gang rape in Delhi called for an end to the silence around sexual violence and demanded criminal justice reforms,” Meenakshi Ganguly, south Asia director of HRW, said in a statement. “Today there are stronger laws and policies, but much remains to be done to ensure that the police, doctors, and the courts treat survivors with dignity.”

HRW analysed 21 cases of rape, including 10 involving girls under the age of 18, interviewing survivors and their family members. The non-profit also interviewed lawyers, doctors, and government and police officials in the four states, as well as in the cities of New Delhi and Mumbai.

Here are the key obstacles they identified:

The police problem

In the event of sexual assault, India’s laws say that a trained female police officer is supposed to record a statement from the victim, and police officials are required to register complaints. But HRW’s research shows that this doesn’t always happen across India.

“(The police) resist filing the First Information Report (FIR), the first step to initiating a police investigation, especially if the victim is from an economically or socially marginalized community,” the report said. “Police sometimes pressure the victim’s family to ‘settle’ or ‘compromise,’ especially if the perpetrator is from a powerful community.”

The organisation gave the example of a 22-year-old from the Lalitpur district in Uttar Pradesh who was raped by a local political leader belonging to a more powerful caste. He threatened to kill her if she went to the police—and the police themselves hardly offered any help, delaying the filing of a complaint until the courts ordered them to do so. In the meantime, facing threats and harassment, the rape survivor and her husband were forced to leave their home and move far away from their village.

In some cases, HRW found that the police treated rape survivors brutally, even resorting to beatings and threats to force them to change their statements. In other instances, the police simply chose not to pursue an investigation, turning a blind-eye to the crime.

Victim-blaming doctors

In 2014, India’s ministry of health and family welfare released guidelines for doctors on how to appropriately conduct examinations on victims of sexual assault. Since medical evidence can be used to bolster the case against perpetrators, these examinations are a key part of the process of securing justice for a rape survivor.

However, so far, only nine out of the country’s 29 states have adopted these guidelines, according to HRW. And they don’t always follow them. In its research, the organisation found many cases of insensitive health workers flouting the guidelines completely, and often blaming the rape victims themselves, insinuating that the act was consensual.

Some hospitals even continue to allow doctors to conduct the intrusive “finger test” to use the state of a victim’s hymen as a way to establish if an assault has really taken place, HRW alleged. And as for providing the necessary counselling and therapeutic care, the healthcare system often fails completely.

“In nearly all the rape cases documented by HRW, women and girls said that they received almost no attention to their health needs, including counseling, even when it was clear they had a great need for it,” the report said.

No legal assistance

If after all these hurdles a rape survivor in India manages to proceed towards fighting for justice in the courts, she usually encounters another big problem: a dire lack of legal represenation.

While the government has established fast-track courts focused on crimes against women and children, and non-governmental organisations in cities such as New Delhi try to make legal aid more accessible, most women from poor or marginalised communities struggle to find legal assistance, especially in rural areas. In many cases, HRW found, the police never even informed victims of their right to legal aid, nor connected them to people who could help.

All together, these obstacles put the victims of sexual assault through yet another harrowing experience, that of trying to seek the justice they deserve in a system that seems expressly designed to deny it.

For any real change, HRW says, central and state governments are going to have to step up their training programmes to make police officers, judicial officers, and medical professionals much more sensitive to the trauma of sexual assault, besides coordinating a more effective implementation of the existing laws and guidelines.

It’s a tough ask. But without this, millions of Indian women will continue to be brutalised by the very system created to protect them.