New Delhi: One woman is raped every 29 minutes, two women every hour, every day of the year in India. The figures are just the rapes where women find courage to report, and become statistics at the National Crime Records Bureau.
What's worse, the trauma of a victim only begins after she is raped. An insensitive society, police force and the judicial system violates her every time she steps out to seek justice. Women battle a system that is often prejudiced against them at every step.
While the judicial system is a very important part in getting justice and is need of a drastic overhaul, the prejudice and bias in a rape case against the woman stems from the society itself. The police, doctors and nurses who conduct the medical examination and the support system which a victim so desperately needs are found to be either overtly hostile or a mute spectator.
There is now a proposal for a new amended law that redefines rape and seeks to correct certain anomalies. But the big question remains is a change in law enough to change how we deal with rape?
Women's rights lawyer Flavia Agnes says, "Rape is a way of violating women both psychologically and physically."
One of the rape victims says, "Mujhe apne aap se nafarat thi. Mere ko dil karta tha ki I'll burn my body. Apni body ko jallaaloo.. mein apni body ko maarti thi." (I used to hate myself. I wanted to burn my body. Burn my body.. I used to hit myself.)
Another Human Rights lawyer Vrinda Grover says, "It's an exercise of power - an exercise of domination which stems from the unequal distribution of power that exists in society."
When a woman goes to a police station what do the police do?
One of the victims says, "Unhone bola ki aapko FIR karwani hai? Ladki ka case hai. Mat karaayein. Aap kyu karwaana chahtein hain?"
What do the doctors do?
A victim states the horror, "Doctor jo on duty mein thi mujhe dekh nahi rahi thi. Meri mummy bechari akele trolley kheech kheech ke le jaa rahi hai. Koi bhi nahi hai support. Kabhi kahenge 4th floor le jao, kabhi kahenge 5th floor le jao..." (Doctors on duty were not examining me. My mother had to wheel me in the trolley all by herself. There is no support. First they would say go on the fourth floor, then go to the fifth floor.)
How do the public prosecutor and everyone in the court treat the girl?
One of the victims says, "Bahoot saara galat galat questions uthaathey hain, character ke upper. Ek ladki ke saath jab ho jaata hai toh har samaaj uska rape karta hain. Ek bar voh ladkon ne kiya phir uske baad sabne." (Many insensitive questions are raised on the girl's character. Once the girl is raped, the society rapes her. Once they are raped by a man, then by rest of the society.)
One night in a private hospital of the capital, the corridors were empty with very little staff and a 19-year-old nurse was attending to a paralysed patient in an intensive care room. The victim says, "Jab 1 baj gaye, mera kamra khola gaya. Mujhe laga ki tender aa gaya. Maine dekha, voh sweeper tha. Voh kuch bola nahi. Maar peetne lag gaya mere ko. Main cheenkh rahi thi naa, to meri awaaz jaane ke liye, mere muunh ke andar haath daala aur pakar ke kheech diya. Meri aankh kheech ke nikaal di. Haath se kheech ke nikaala. Uske baad mujhe rape kar ke feka. (At one o'clock, he opened my room. I thought the tender has come. But it was the sweeper. He did not say anything. He started beating me. As I started screaming, to prevent me from doing so, he stuffed his hand inside my throat. And pulled it hard. He gouged my eye out. I was bleeding profusely from the nose and ear. Then threw me after raping me.)
Next morning a wardboy found her lying almost unconscious profusely bleeding and with her left eye ball hanging out by the vein. She had miraculously survived the brutal rape, but her horror had just begun.
"Phir humne complaint likhaai. FIR. Police ne bhi FIR pe response nahi karaa. Mazaak samjhaa. Unhe mujhe treatment leke jaana chahiye tha. MLC karaani chahiye thi. Kuch nahi karaa," recounts the victim. (Then I filed a complaint. But the police did not respond to the FIR. They took it lightly. They should have got me treated and got MLC done. But they did nothing.)
Human Rights lawyer Vrinda Grover says, "The system is extremely biased and doesn't take women's bodily integrity or women's dignity seriously."
The law says an FIR must be registered when a crime is reported. The Supreme Court has pushed the police to follow it. But in rape, the resistance comes from prejudice. The first point of contact in a police station, the duty officer, often dissuades a woman from registering it. He is ill-trained to handle a sensitive issue like rape - every complaint is just a statistic.
Exactly six years ago, an 18 year old student was returning home from her tuition on a busy road at 4 pm. She was pulled into a Scorpio by four boys and gangraped. After gathering courage when she finally approached the police with her mother they refused to file an FIR.
Police claim social stigma prevents victims from reporting rape. But it is often the prejudice felt at the police station that deters victims. But when this young medical student insisted on lodging a complaint - this is what followed.
"Police ka behaviour bahut insensitive tha. Starting mein galat nazar se dekha. Itna detail mein poochte hain. Pata hai ki kya hua hoga, farak nahi padta. Kisi ke ghar beti nahi hai, ki sympathy ho. Jo parde mein honi chahiye. Nahi, openly sab kuch poochta hai," says the victim. (The police's behaviour was very insensitive. Initially they looked at me in the wrong light. They would ask questions in details. They asked if I knew what had happened. They did not care. As if they don't have daughters of their own. Things that should have been asked discreetly, were asked in front of everyone.)
Arguably, the police need specific details for a probe but activists argue these details are often extracted insensitively. A senior police officer admits to a gender bias.
JCP, Northern Range Tejinder Luthra said, "Most constables come from different socio-economic background. When they service clients from a different socio-economic society and different socio-economic values, there is a bit of clash. The people who come and join our constabulary makes the majority of this country. They are also not at fault."
Ironically, women police officers too fare poorly on the sensitivity quotient.
DCP North Delhi Sindhu Pillai said, "We have to take our own precaution. We should know up to the limit we should allow people to come. There are precautions we can adopt, until and unless entire society changes itself. It will take time."
Vrinda says, "We've had a police chief who has told us how to dress! We've had a Chief Minister who told us what time to come home by? These are highly educated elite of this country. This bias runs through and through."
In Patna, an alleged gangrape victim claimed virtually no investigations were conducted for over a month. In Kolkata, a woman who alleged rape, said she was then harassed by the police itself. In many cases, across India, the entire system appears to be failing the victim… not just the police force.
Only when media and activists intervened was the nurse, a victim of gangrape, was provided medical care. But it was still too late - she had lost her eye forever. "Vision toh pura khatam ho gaya. Mujhe mere eye ko roj face karnapadta hai. Abhi tak treatment chal raha hai," rues the victim. (I completely lost the vision. I have to face my eye everyday. The treatment is still going on.)
Forensic Expert at AIIMS Sudhir Gupta says, "The medical examination of rape victim is not taken as a special case it is mixed up in casualty with other medical cases."
Medical experts believe some minor but key changes, at par with how rape cases are handled in other countries can bring relief to victims.
Gupta says, "There's no space in a hospital identified for rape victim. No specific doctors appointed in any hospital for examining sexually assaulted victims."
Forensic Expert at KEM Hospital Harish Pathak says, "There (Outside India) they have a dedicated centre where the victim is taken and examined. Here, we don't have that kind of system. If admitted, she is admitted in the general ward."
Gupta adds, "When a rape victim is brought by police or public or come themselves, the routine doctors are asked to do the medical examination. When you are involved in doing routine intervention you have no separate time or guideline or separate job or accountability for rape victim. That's the reason these cases are not being dealt with 100 per cent concentration and the time which is required for these cases.
Pathak adds, "In the US they have sexual assault in nurse examination system. A nurse is trained, she handles the victim, she collects the evidence and she is really well trained to even give deposition in the court."
Hospitals are key links in rape cases. Medical evidence is most crucial in establishing guilt. Specially as witnesses or other conclusive evidence is rare. Blood samples, saliva stains, even strands of hair need to be collected with precision. Often, that's not the case.
Most states in India have a severe shortage of labs and qualified personnel too. Estimates suggest there are only 25 states and four central forensic labs that are proficient in handling cases, and very few DNA experts who can actually handle complex cases.
Commissioner of Police, Gurgaon KK Sindhu said, "In the North if you have only one DNA testing lab, only a couple of scientists. We don't have that expertise and the people."
The US has over 400 forensic labs, superior in technique and training. And this isn't the end of the nightmare.
Another victim says, "The incident happened at night. I was waiting for the bus or a cab whichever came first. So there was this cab. I told him where I had to go, he said okay and I got into the cab. I was the only one in the cab. I asked him why we are not going on main road he said it is a short cut. After driving for long he stopped at one spot he said he want to go to pee and got out of the car. I felt that something is really wrong. I also got out of the car to note the number. He caught my neck and started slapping me many times. I was crying and asking him why are you doing this? We were struggling and fighting. I fell on the ground. He sat on me and kept on slapping me and I became semi-conscious for few minutes. I regained consciousness. I just struggled and I somehow managed to escape. I ran out without my pants. I ran without looking back - I just never looked back.
That very night this teenaged victim reported the rape to the police and was taken to a government hospital. Injured, shattered and traumatised, she had no idea what the medical examination meant, when she signed for approval.
"They asked me to lie down, checked my vagina, put their fingers in. I was shouting and screaming don't do it. They said they had to do it, it was really a hard thing. I don't know why they had to do it, I really don't know. They were squeezing it around that was the most painful thing I had ever gone through," recounts the victim.
Then just 17, she was put through the Finger Test, a crude method to detect intercourse. In 2011, the Health Ministry had instructed Central government hospitals to stop using the finger test. Guidelines from the World Health Organisation (WHO) also state that forensic examinations must be minimally invasive.
Vrinda argues, "What does the two-finger test communicate to us that the woman or a girl is used to sexual activity? How is it relevant? If the girl did not consent that particular physical or sexual relationship then that amounts to sexual assault. It does not matter if she is accustomed to sexual activity at all."
It's not just these outdated medical tests that reveal the victim's sexual history or "habituation to sex" as insensitively put on record but her morals are further questioned as she's pinned down in the witness box by the lawyers.
Flavia says, "Most humiliating for the rape victim to be firstly tested and then giving this evidence in court to say this girl is not a virgin and therefore habituated with sexual intercourse - where a medical exam becomes a moral testimony on a girl, where the doctors have no right to do this."
In several cases, the medical report forms the basis of arguments in court. The Medico Legal Certificate or MLC of this student victim stated - allowed one finger test and hymen not intact.
The defence counsel questioned her sexual behaviour on the basis of this finger test report, even as the men accused of gang-raping her stood smiling in court.
The victim recalls, "Saamne khade the aur unko lawyer ne aur aagey bula diya. Bola inko dekhke baat karo. Woh shaklein bana rahe the." (They were standing right in front of me and the lawyer told them to come ahead. The lawyer asked me to answer them while looking at them. They were making faces at me.)
The Supreme Court recognises the issue and now has strict guidelines on how rape trials should be conducted. Flavia says the court has instructed that if a young girl or child is nervous a screen should be put.
Vrinda says, "The sole testimony of the prosecuter, the rape victim is sufficient conviction of rape. So the rest of the evidence is corroborative evidence."
But on the ground, in many courtrooms, most of these guidelines are violated. Flavia states, "The judge is not bothered, nobody is bothered. Suddenly you are putting this girl into the box and the defence lawyer will bombard her with questions."
Lawyer Manisha Bhandari says, "There were questions to the extent asking a seven-year child to identify body parts. You are asking names of body parts. You can't do that."
Lawyer: Do you know what the male organ from where the man urinates is called?
Lawyer: When he raped you was your underwear above or below your knee?
Child: I don't remember.
The victim gets so confused about the questions. She doesn't know what to answer. Maximum cases fail because of this. And the inordinate delays in trials, only adds to the complexity and weakens the case.
Vrinda says, "I am a practicing lawyer. Investigations done by police are shoddy and unprofessional. They don't even do the basics of criminal investigation."
In this blame game, it's the victim who loses. After a four-year battle, a once aspiring medical student lost her case. The four men who allegedly gangraped her are free."
It's in this backdrop that the Cabinet has approved a new Sexual Assault Bill. A key change being making rape a gender neutral crime and replacing the word rape with sexual assault. Will it change the attitude towards the victim? Only a complete systemic overhaul can help improve the reality.
Implementing the solutions will take time and a lot of commitment. For our criminal justice system to truly change may well take a lot longer.
One of the victim sums it up, "I just stay at home and keep thinking why me, why me. Life will never be the same again. I just want this to be over."