This Women’s Day, I Wish Gender Justice Isn’t Just a Utopian Ideal

NCRB data shows that crimes against women increased 7.3 percent from 2018 to 2019.

5 min read
NCRB data shows that crimes against women increased 7.3 percent from 2018 to 2019.

What I want this International Women's Day is a change in how our system responds to cases of violence against women and girls. I want change at a procedural level, change that recognises the fundamental flaw in our resources and bridges the gap with the help of existing apparatus.

As a young woman, it never ceases to amaze me that people still use the term “gender equality” as if it were an unattainable, utopian ideal. Perhaps one of the most important conversations of our time, at its core, gender equality is a question of power. Change succeeds/precedes a tectonic shift in power structures – socio-cultural, political, and especially financial. Funding change as a means to achieving gender justice and one day, gender equality, is an uncharted territory but one definitely worth our time and money.

Violence against women and girls (VAWG) continues to wreak havoc on how we live our lives. Data shows crimes against women increased 7.3 percent from 2018 to 2019. A recent report by Hindustan Times shows a rape case is reported every five hours in Delhi.

Although we have in place a repertoire of commendable policies to tackle VAWG concerns, there exist many a lacunae when it comes to executing such affirmative action plans into efficient and speedy systems of justice delivery.

Leveraging a Successful Rape Prosecution

While we may not be as litigious a country as Norway, we certainly are an affirmatively legislated country and yet we fall short on capacity-building efforts towards implementing gender justice. Data shows, in 2018, 1,56,327 rape cases were on trial of which only 4,708 cases resulted in convictions. There was acquittal in 11,133 rape cases, and discharge in 1,472 cases.

First recommended by the 11th Finance Commission to reduce the backlog of cases in lower courts, today there are 786 Fast Track Courts functional across India.

What we need to understand is that there is no difference in the legal process of operation between FTCs and regular courts except that the former only hear specific category of cases, namely cases pertaining to women or POCSO cases.
Source for table: Zero Pendency Courts Project, Final Report on The Pilot Project by Delhi HC
Source for table: Zero Pendency Courts Project, Final Report on The Pilot Project by Delhi HC
(Photo: The Quint)
Source for table: Zero Pendency Courts Project, Final Report on The Pilot Project by Delhi HC
Source for table: Zero Pendency Courts Project, Final Report on The Pilot Project by Delhi HC
(Photo: The Quint)

(Note: Table shows the average minutes that courts took to dispose various kinds of cases over the period of two years i.e. between 2017 and 2018.)

Both tables show there is a persistent gap in enforcing our welfare mechanism and achieving significant gains in reducing crimes against women. Yes, FTCs mark a significant stride in the struggle for gender justice but we need something more concrete than a stop-gap solution. Perhaps the reason FTCs are not delivering on the scale of efficiency is because we are pressurising a system that can yield only so much.

It is a fact that no institutional measure can operate in a vacuum. In order to ensure that FTC Mahila courts meet the requisite timelines, we need to augment the existing machinery with support infrastructure.

What we need is to move beyond linear parameters that will ensure expeditious delivery of justice. It is at this juncture we must identify and ameliorate circumstances barricading a speedy trial.

Amplifying Access to Gender Justice

A Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL) report is a scientific piece of corroborative evidence that is added to a charge sheet, which buttresses the prosecution's case in any criminal offence, including cases of sexual violence. It is in context of this that we need to understand the importance and credibility of DNA-based evidence in identifying accused persons, especially in crimes against women.

It has been argued that forensic DNA has emerged as the most reliable crime-fighting technology worldwide. Currently, there are two FSL labs in Delhi – one in Rohini and the other on Lodhi Road – that are responsible for releasing reports for all serious criminal offences, including sexual offences across all courts in Delhi.

According to the Directorate of Forensic Science Services (DFSS), more than 12,000 DNA samples from sexual assault cases were awaiting examination in three of the six Central FSLs across India till December 2017.

The existing FSLs are overburdened and short-staffed. An overhaul is needed so as to ensure expeditious justice. Seasoned Public Prosecutor at Saket Sessions Court AT Ansari says, “an FSL report is crucial in determining the guilt of an accused because of its accuracy and also reduces the burden of a public prosecutor to prove their case beyond reasonable doubt.”

Ensuring feasibility of our institutional responses to address gender-based violations is as much a part of providing accessible and timely legal remedies as legal reform.

Women, Front & Centre

Rs 870 crore was released by the central government to state governments for FTCs during a period of 11 years from 2000-2011 where each FTC was expected to dispose of 41-42 cases in every quarter and at least 165 cases in a year. In terms of existing budgetary allocations, the central government has earmarked Rs 4,100 crore for 1,800 fast-track courts across the country.

An interesting argument is made by Angelika Arutyunova and Cindy Clark in their report titled “Watering the Leaves, Starving the Roots.” Here they refer to ‘leaves’ as individual women and girls who are receiving attention without support for ‘the roots,’ that is, “sustained, collective action.

In the context of tackling violence against women, the granular structural inequalities that operate in tandem with our justice mechanisms may be labeled “roots.”

Access to justice bereft of speedy trials reduces the former to a mere redundancy. In all this, there is a relatively simple solution, one that is often overlooked in a classic instance of missing the woods for the trees, namely developing gender-responsive budgets and enhancing, rather than cutting, support to gender-equality measures.

It is here that we must appreciate the importance of eliminating structural hurdles that stand in the way of access to justice, which is an integral process to the end itself.

Therefore, the need of the hour is to finance and develop technology-infrastructure to “prioritise the quality and continuity of police and justice sector response to gender-based violence.” One such effort would be funding capacity-building measures, such as setting-up of additional FSL centres across the country, to reduce the time taken per FTC dealing with cases involving violence against women.

The imperative for such funding is, if half of our citizenry is a systemic target of gender-based violence then for curing this societal malady, the State would see allocating a portion of its budget as an end-in-itself.

And it is towards achieving that end that I direct all my prayers this International Women’s Day.

(Aaliya Waziri is a lawyer and presently working as a Consultant with UN Women India. She has studied B.A. Philosophy (Hons) at Hindu College, University of Delhi and LL.B. at O.P. Jindal Global University. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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