The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 passed – Children in India get a new Law

The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012, has been passed by the Lok Sabha today, 22nd May, 2012. The Bill was earlier passed by the Rajya Sabha on 10th May, 2012.

The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 has been drafted to strengthen the legal provisions for the protection of children from sexual abuse and exploitation. For the first time, a special law has been passed to address the issue of sexual offences against children.

 Sexual offences are currently covered under different sections of IPC. The IPC does not provide for all types of sexual offences against children and, more importantly, does not distinguish between adult and child victims.

 The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 defines a child as any person below the age of 18 years and provides protection to all children under the age of 18 years from the offences of sexual assault, sexual harassment and pornography. These offences have been clearly defined for the first time in law. The Act provides for stringent punishments, which have been graded as per the gravity of the offence. The punishments range from simple to rigorous imprisonment of varying periods. There is also provision for fine, which is to be decided by the Court.

An offence is treated as “aggravated” when committed by a person in a position of trust or authority of child such as a member of security forces, police officer, public servant, etc.

 Punishments for Offences covered in the Act are:

  1. Penetrative Sexual Assault (Section 3) –  Not less than seven years which may extend to imprisonment for life, and fine (Section 4)
  2.  Aggravated Penetrative Sexual Assault (Section 5) –­ Not less than ten years which may extend to imprisonment for life, and fine (Section 6)
  3. Sexual Assault (Section 7) – Not less than three years which may extend to five years, and fine  (Section 8 )
  4. Aggravated Sexual Assault (Section 9) – Not less than five years which may extend to seven years, and fine (Section 10)
  5. Sexual Harassment of the Child (Section 11) – Three years and fine (Section 12)
  6. Use of Child for Pornographic Purposes (Section 13) –  Five years and fine and in the event of subsequent conviction, seven years and fine (Section 14 (1))

The Act provides for the establishment of Special Courts for trial of offences under the Act, keeping the best interest of the child as of paramount importance at every stage of the judicial process. The Act incorporates child friendly procedures for reporting, recording of evidence, investigation and trial of offences. These include:

  1. Recording the statement of the child at the residence of the child or at the place of his choice, preferably by a woman police officer not below the rank of sub-inspector
  2. No child to be detained in the police station in the night for any reason.
  3. Police officer to not be in uniform while recording the statement of the child
  4. The statement of the child to be recorded as spoken by the child
  5. Assistance of an interpreter or translator or an expert as per the need of the child
  6. Assistance of special educator or any person familiar with the manner of communication  of the child in case child is disabled
  7. Medical examination of the child to be conducted in the presence of the parent of the child or any other person in whom the child has trust or confidence.
  8. In case the victim is a girl child, the medical examination shall be conducted by a woman doctor.
  9. Frequent breaks for the child during trial
  10. Child not to be called repeatedly to testify
  11. No aggressive questioning or character assassination of the child
  12. In-camera trial of cases

The Act recognizes that the intent to commit an offence, even when unsuccessful for whatever reason, needs to be penalized. The attempt to commit an offence under the Act has been made liable for punishment for upto half the punishment prescribed for the commission of the offence. The Act also provides for punishment for abetment of the offence, which is the same as for the commission of the offence. This would cover trafficking of children for sexual purposes.

For the more heinous offences of Penetrative Sexual Assault, Aggravated Penetrative Sexual Assault, Sexual Assault and Aggravated Sexual Assault, the burden of proof is shifted on the accused. This provision has been made keeping in view the greater vulnerability and innocence of children. At the same time, to prevent misuse of the law, punishment has been provided for making false complaint or proving false information with malicious intent. Such punishment has been kept relatively light (six months) to encourage reporting. If false complaint is made against a child, punishment is higher (one year).

The media has been barred from disclosing the identity of the child without the permission of the Special Court. The punishment for breaching this provision by media may be from six months to one year.

For speedy trial, the Act provides for the evidence of the child to be recorded within a period of 30 days. Also, the Special Court is to complete the trial within a period of one year, as far as possible.

To provide for relief and rehabilitation of the child, as soon as the complaint is made to the Special Juvenile Police Unit (SJPU) or local police, these will make immediate arrangements to give the child, care and protection such as admitting the child into shelter home or to the nearest hospital within twenty-four hours of the report. The SJPU or the local police are also required to report the matter to the Child Welfare Committee within 24 hours of recording the complaint, for long term rehabilitation of the child.

The Act casts a duty on the Central and State Governments to spread awareness through media including the television, radio and the print media at regular intervals to make the general public, children as well as their parents and guardians aware of the provisions of this Act.

The National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) and State Commissions for the Protection of Child Rights (SCPCRs) have been made the designated authority to monitor the implementation of the Act.

  1.  SCR summary-Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Bill
  2. SCR Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Bill 2011
  3. Children  sexual offences
  4. Bill Summary – The Protection of children from sexual harassment Bill, 2011

Our Worst-Kept Secret

Violence against women in the private realm is relegated to secondary status, whether in India or in the United States. Strong laws and public policies are essential steps toward combating such violence. But the real solution lies in a culture shift, in the world, and in each of our homes


Three friends walked home after another tiring rehearsal for the school function. It was barely dusk. When the man leapt out of nowhere to pounce on Bandana (name changed), no one was sure what happened. Then a yell grew out of one belly and found its way down the road, down their backs, and into small eighth-grade fists that pounded on the man. He ran. The girls were proud they had fought. When they got home, they told the story solemnly. “Well, that’s what happens when you go walking around in the evenings, going out like that alone!” Bandana’s father message was clear — Chandigarh, 1997.

Brushed under the carpet

The message young girls begin receiving from our families, friends, and society becomes engrained by the time they reach womanhood: that we must not make the unforgiveable mistake of becoming victims of violence. While violence by strangers at least provides some room for women expressing their agony and demanding redressal, violence within the home remains a taboo topic. And this taboo crosses geographic, ethnic, and racial borders.

Victims of domestic abuse

On 17 August 2011, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights published its opinion finding the United States on the wrong side of human rights and domestic violence survivors. The Commission had considered the case of Jessica Lenahan (formerly Gonzales) whose three young daughters were abducted by Lenahan’s abusive husband, Simon Gonzales, in Castle Rock, Colorado in 1999. Despite Lenahan’s repeated calls and pleas to the police, reporting that she already had a domestic violence restraining order (a legal remedy the US has made relatively easily accessible to its residents) against Simon, the police failed to act for 10 hours. Eventually, Simon Gonzales drove up to the police department and opened fire. He was shot dead by the police. The three girls were subsequently discovered shot to death inside Simon’s truck. Jessica’s legal battle for this tragic loss yielded no results.

In 2005, the US Supreme Court even found that the police involved had not violated the US Constitution by their inaction. However, the Inter-American Commission found that the US had indeed violated human rights by failing to uphold its laws to protect its nationals from domestic violence.

Laws alone not enough

In India too, domestic violence is a punishable offense under the law, even if only rather recently. The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, which became effective starting October 26, 2006, clearly recognised domestic violence as a punishable offence. However, the recent shaming of the US—a country that has innumerable times more extensive legal protections and services for domestic violence survivors-provides a moment of pause from comparing the wide (perhaps incomparable) chasm between the two legal systems and rather understanding a sad commonality. Laws alone cannot curb violence in the homes as long as domestic violence continues to be treated ‘special’. When it comes to such crimes, we often hear: “There must be two sides to the story” or “they both have strong personalities” or “he is frustrated since he lost his job.”

But, consider this scenario: if my neighbour loses his job, and proceeds to pick fights with me every day, gets drunk and curses me, breaks a window, wouldn’t you agree with my decision to call the police, whether or not he ever physically touches me? But if my partner does the same, why shouldn’t he conform to the standard of behavior, the law and society demand from my acquaintance-neighbour?

Breaking uneasy silence

Such uncomfortable discussions are thus largely missing in our living rooms. The domestic violence movement in the US has been asking precisely such questions more publically, loudly, and brazenly, than in many other parts of the world. For example, during October, nationally recognised as ‘Domestic Violence Awareness Month’ in the US, several public awareness activities are undertaken country-wide. During ‘Standing Silent Witness’ hours, women and men line up in busy city squares holding placards or wearing T-shirts with slogans acknowledging someone they know (or know of) who has faced domestic violence. During ‘Remembrance Days,’ survivors, allies, advocates, join together to remember those who have died because of domestic violence and also celebrate those who have survived. Purple ribbons, which have become the symbols of solidarity with anti-domestic violence work, are made into pins and passed out at local events; worn on bags and jackets; and hung on doors.

In India, we saw the Bell Bajao campaign, by the non-profit Breakthrough in 2008. TV, radio, online and print media were employed to circulate catchy calls for action by society to take a stand against domestic violence. To break the uneasy silence.

Measuring domestic violence

The anti-violence movement in the US has also promoted the measurement of domestic violence crimes, and the publicising of the statistics, so as to respond to the universal reaction—“We aren’t that kind of a family!”

On an average, according to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than three women and one man are murdered by their intimate partners in the US every day. The Center for Disease Control has found that one in four women and one in nine men in the US report being victims of domestic violence at some points in their lives. Also, more recently, teen dating violence has been studied as a priority: approximately one in five female high school students report being physically, sexually, or emotionally abused by a dating partner.

In India, the National Family Health Survey (NFHS), 2005-06, recorded that 37 per cent women reported being survivors of spousal abuse; that is more than 1 in 3. These statistics show that most of us know someone who is a survivor of such violence, and all of us then are in fact ‘that kind of a family.’

Violence knows no bar

When I began representing domestic violence survivors in Californian courts, one of my mother’s friend’s asked her in all earnest, “So is wife-beating really a problem with Americans too?” (She clarified later that she meant ‘white’ Americans, of course.) My work has borne out the statistics that domestic violence knows no race, class, or religious boundaries. However, socio-economic factors can increase vulnerability for such violence: for example, if someone has no source of income, her abuser knows that her economic situation will prevent her from speaking about the violence or seeking help.

Domestic violence is a human rights problem that exists across borders, as the Inter-American Commission recently reminded the US—It is not a ‘women’s issue’ rather affects boys and men very severely. Indeed, India’s Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, does not cover men, and most commentaries on domestic violence-including this one-refer to the perpetrators of violence as male and the victim as female. This is simply because domestic violence victims are disproportionately female. However, men can be and are victims of violence by their partners in some cases as well, both in homosexual and heterosexual relationships. Moreover, this violence does not take place in a vacuum.

Children, girls as well as boys, are witnesses to such violence. Even if they are themselves never the direct targets of the violence, they bear the emotional costs of growing up in an environment of repeated cycles of fear, escalation of tensions, outbursts of violence, and misleading periods of calm. Studies show that children who grow up in violent homes, either themselves become vulnerable to being abused as adults or have a higher likelihood of becoming abusers in the future. This ‘cycle of power and control,’ which broadly describes domestic violence, has its immediate and collateral victims.

Move beyond campaigns

Campaigns such as ‘bell bajao’ or ‘standing silent witness’ or ‘remembrance days’ focus on cases where there are identifiable victims, in already violent relationships. Some of us might then still participate in these campaigns and still claim, “We aren’t that kind of a family!”

What would truly make us not one of ‘those’ families is if we start to check our everyday responses to gender inequalities and discrimination. Unless we stop calling street harassment ‘eve teasing;’ stop worrying about protecting our girls’ reputations even at the costs of their safety; stop spending more time, money and energy on weddings than on talking about healthy relationships and marriages, we will not stop domestic violence. Only when three friends can walk with safety as well as the security of the knowledge that they will not be judged should they face harm by someone, whether on the street or in the home, can we begin to feel assured that we are progressing towards equal justice for all.

Cycle of Power and Control 

Intimate partner violence or domestic violence (DV) is controlling, abusive, and aggressive behavior in an intimate relationship . It includes verbal, emotional, physical, and/or sexual abuse.

DV usually comes to public notice only in extreme cases of physical abuse.

However, behind closed doors, such violence typically follows a regular pattern of three phases that repeat themselves:

One, the ‘tension-building’ phase. The abuser becomes increasingly irritable, moody, impatient, resulting in his partner “walking on eggshells,” not knowing what might make the abuser more angry.

Two, the ‘acute’ phase. There is some sort of explosion and violence that may be verbal, physical, and/or sexual.

Third, the ‘honeymoon’ phase. There is calm again. The abuser may apologise or pretend like nothing happened and may bring flowers and chocolates. The partner starts to feel relief. That is till the ‘tension-building’ phase begins again.

There is thus a clear difference between common, everyday disputes between couples and domestic violence.

Three things to tell someone who is facing such violence: I believe you / You are not alone /You have options

The writer is a lawyer who focuses on  gender and minority issues in the United States and South Asia.


Can Live in partner claim maintenance under Section 125 Cr P C


A Bench of Justice G S Singhvi and Justice Ashok Kumar Ganguly requested  the Hon’ble Chief Justice to refer the following, amongst other, questions to be decided by a larger Bench.

The questions are:

1. Whether the living together of a man and woman as husband and wife for a considerable period of time would raise the presumption of a valid marriage between them and whether such a presumption would entitle the woman to maintenance under Section 125 Cr.P.C?

2. Whether strict proof of marriage is essential for a claim of maintenance under Section 125 Cr.P.C. having regard to the provisions of Domestic Violence Act, 2005?

3. Whether a marriage performed according to customary rites and ceremonies, without strictly fulfilling the requisites of Section 7(1) of the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, or any other personal law would entitle the woman to maintenance under Section 125 Cr.P.C.?

The Bench said “We are of the opinion that a broad and expansive interpretation should be given to the term ‘wife’ to include even those cases where a man and woman have been living together as husband and wife for a reasonably long period of time, and strict proof of marriage should not be a pre-condition for maintenance under Section 125 of the Cr.P.C, so as to fulfil the true spirit and essence of the beneficial provision of maintenance under Section 125. We also believe that such an interpretation would be a just application of the principles enshrined in the Preamble to our Constitution, namely, social justice and upholding the dignity of the individual”.

For Indian Rape Laws, Change Is Slow to Come

Human Rights Watch logo
Image via Wikipedia


NEW DELHI — Should a woman’s sexual experience and history be introduced as evidence in the trial of her accused rapist? Will the Indian legal system ever recognize forced sex between husband and wife as rape? What constitutes the “modesty” of a 10-year-old girl?

A recent report by Human Rights Watch examining the common practice in India of subjecting unmarried women who say they have been raped to what the law calls a “finger test” has reopened a series of questions about the country’s laws governing sexual violence. The report, compiled by Aruna Kashyap, a women’s rights researcher, called for an end to the test, which as the name suggests, involves inserting fingers into the woman to measure “vaginal laxity” and thereby ascertain whether she was “habituated to sex” before the alleged assault.

Although there has been no official response to the report, its findings have provoked widespread outrage in India and elsewhere, with many agreeing that the test is an archaic and scientifically unsupported practice that could exacerbate the trauma of the victim.

In the same week the report was released, less noticed but telling were the routine police reports filed around the country of alleged crimes under Section 354 of the Indian Penal Code, which makes “outraging the modesty of a woman” a criminal offense. One of the cases that came to trial concerned a teacher who had “outraged the modesty” of a 10-year-old in his care. The euphemism effectively veiled the impact of what had really happened — three separate incidents of sexual assault on a child.

In a country where legal reform has been progressive in many spheres, and where the judiciary has often taken an active role in protecting human rights, the slow pace of change in the rape laws is evidence of a larger cultural silence regarding violence against women.

Urvashi Butalia, a prominent feminist scholar and publisher, is blunt in her analysis of the decades of official indifference that have surrounded India’s laws on rape.

“Laws that relate to violence against women, as the rape law largely does, are, in the eyes of the state, best forgotten or not bothered about,” she said in an interview. “Or at least they don’t have the same kind of urgency as, say, corporate legislation might.” “This is still a society that somehow sees women differently, or does not see them at all,” she said. “To me, indifference is much more difficult to fight than active resistance. Resistance is visible. Indifference is often so naturalized that it remains invisible and therefore a major obstacle.”

The first major changes to the laws on rape, which had been inherited almost intact from the days of British rule, only came in 1983. Before then, a woman who said she had been raped had the obligation to prove she had not given her consent.

And it was only this year that the government set up a committee to consider whether the laws should be changed to define sex without consent in marriage as a crime, whether they should be gender-neutral to include the sexual abuse of men and boys, and whether the definition of rape should be expanded to include penetration with objects. The finger test — which ostensibly provides evidence of a woman’s level of promiscuity and has, in some cases, led to rape charges being dropped — is not the only hangover from the days of the Raj.

For Ms. Kashyap, the author of the Human Rights Watch report, the issue goes beyond how the legal system handles rape to the question of how rape is viewed by Indian society. The need for reform goes beyond the law, she said; the need is to change how Indians see rape in the 21st century, as an act of violence rather than an assault on a woman’s chastity.

“Even in its current law-reform phase, the Indian government has retained the coinage of ‘outraging’ or ‘insulting’ the ‘modesty’ of women,” Ms. Kashyap said. “Sexual violence should be completely delinked from patriarchal notions of ‘modesty,’ ‘chastity’ or ‘virginity,’ because ideas of so-called ‘modesty’ themselves perpetuate violence and discrimination. The Indian government should acknowledge that sexual violence is a violation of women’s dignity, equality, sexual autonomy and bodily integrity.”

Underlying the finger test is an unspoken but very strong belief: the idea that a promiscuous woman, or a sexually liberated woman, is fair game, her “modesty” no longer the responsibility of the government to protect.

“Outraging the modesty of a woman” now covers a wide range of cases, many of them unequivocal instances of violence.

The newspapers regularly report incidents in which women, chiefly from the lower castes, are stripped and sometimes beaten as a act of revenge against their communities or families.

In a case in July in a Mumbai slum, a young, lower-caste woman was stripped by a mob of about 20 assailants in a case arising from a dispute between families from different castes. Some of the attackers recorded the assault on their mobile phones. Women’s rights advocates have asked that the prison sentence for those convicted of such attacks be extended from two to seven years. The news media still often refer such assailants as “molesters.” A softening and denial of violence is built into the system.

One 36-year-old woman knows this firsthand. She runs her own garment export company in Ludhiana, the largest city in the northern state of Punjab, and could be the prototype for the modern, successful Indian woman. She is also divorced, from a man who raped her so brutally during their 10-year marriage that she has had to undergo vaginal reconstruction surgery. The law only recognizes a form of rape within marriage in the case of girls under the age of 15, who are considered minors whose unions are not legally valid. So she had to obtain her divorce on other grounds.

“I want to tell the world, my family and friends, the truth — my husband was a rapist,” said the woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity to shield her family. “I can tell them about the beatings, but not the rapes. We aren’t supposed to talk about these matters, because they’re shameful. But if there was shame, there was also anger. The anger of being told, ‘He was your husband, he had the right to do this.’ Maybe for others, it will change. My pain has no voice.”


India: Prohibit Degrading ‘Test’ for Rape


Forensic Exams Should Respect Survivors’ Rights to Health, Privacy, and Dignity

(Mumbai) – Many Indian hospitals routinely subject rape survivors to forensic examinations that include the unscientific and degrading “finger” test, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. It urged the Indian government to ban the practice, used to determine whether the rape survivor is “habituated” to sexual intercourse, as it reforms its laws on sexual violence. The 54-page report, “Dignity on Trial: India’s Need for Sound Standards for Conducting and Interpreting Forensic Examinations of Rape Survivors,” documents the continued use of the archaic practice and the continued reliance on the “results” by many defense counsel and courts. The practice, described in outdated medical jurisprudence textbooks used by many doctors, lawyers, and judges, involves a doctor inserting fingers in a rape victim’s vagina to determine the presence or absence of the hymen and the so-called “laxity” of the vagina. These findings perpetuate false and damaging stereotypes of rape survivors as “loose” women. Defense attorneys use the findings to challenge the credibility, character, and the lack of consent of the survivors.

“This test is yet another assault on a rape survivor, placing her at risk of further humiliation,” said Aruna Kashyap, women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Indian government should heed demands of Indian activists to abolish this degrading and useless practice.”Finger test findings are scientifically baseless because an “old tear” of the hymen or variation of the “size” of the hymenal orifice can be due to reasons unrelated to sex. Carried out without informed consent, the test would constitute an assault, and is a form of inhuman and degrading treatment, Human Rights Watch said.”I was so scared and nervous and praying all the time: ‘God, let this be over and let me get out of here fast,” the report quotes one rape survivor as saying as she described her experience of a forensic examination.

The Indian government amended its evidence law in 2003 to prohibit cross-examination of survivors based on their “general immoral character.” The Indian Supreme Court, whose decisions are binding, has described opinions based on the finger test as “hypothetical and opinionative,” and has ruled that they cannot be used against a rape survivor.Although these developments have helped curtail the practice, the Indian government has yet to take steps to ensure that all states eliminate it.  There are no nationwide guidelines or programs to standardize forensic examinations and to train and sensitize doctors, police, prosecutors, and judges to survivors’ rights. But the Indian government is currently reviewing laws regarding sexual violence, presenting a unique opportunity for change.

“The Indian government has paid little attention to how health care and forensic services are delivered to survivors of sexual violence,” Kashyap said. “The Indian government should set right this injustice with a comprehensive policy and program for such services.”The report is based on 44 interviews in Mumbai and Delhi with activists, rape survivors and their parents, prosecutors, other lawyers, judges, doctors, and forensic experts. Research also included a review of forensic examination templates used in those cities, and an analysis of 153 High Court judgments on rape that referred to the finger test findings from 18 states. It finds that the finger test-related information continues to be collected and used.

Forensic examinations are a harrowing experience for many rape survivors, who are shunted from one hospital or ward to another for various aspects of the examination. Often doctors insist that the survivor must make a police complaint when she approaches them directly, which can intimidate her. Further, inserting fingers into the vaginal or anal orifice of an adult or child survivor of sexual violence during a forensic examination can cause additional trauma, as it not only mimics the abuse but can also be painful. Some doctors in India conduct the finger test with little or no regard for a survivor’s pain or trauma, Human Rights Watch found.

Many High Court judgments reveal that doctors have testified in court that having one or two fingers inserted into the vagina is “painful” or “very painful” for the survivor.  And when the survivor did not experience any pain –  if two fingers could be inserted “painlessly” or “easily” – then she was described as being “habituated to sex.””Survivors of sexual violence have the right to legal recourse without being further traumatized in the process,” Kashyap said. “The health and criminal justice systems should work together to ensure that they do not perpetuate damaging stereotypes of survivors.”

The Maharashtra and Delhi governments continue to recommend the finger test in their forensic examination templates. For example, as recently as June 2010, the Maharashtra state government introduced a standard forensic examination template that includes a series of questions about the hymen, including the number of fingers that can be admitted into the hymenal orifice. Early this year, the Delhi government introduced a forensic examination template that asks questions about the hymen, including whether it is “intact” or “torn,” the “size of the hymenal orifice,” whether the vagina is “roomy” or “narrow” and has “old tears,” and even asks the examining doctor to give an opinion whether the survivor was “habituated to sex.” Much of the Delhi template resembles a template created by the Indian Medical Association and disseminated to doctors across the country between 2006 and 2008.

The World Health Organization’s (WHO) “Guidelines for medico-legal care for victims of sexual violence” recommends that health care and forensic services be provided at the same time, and by the same person, to reduce the potential for duplicating questions and further traumatizing the survivor of sexual assault. It states that health and welfare of a survivor of sexual violence is “the overriding priority” and that forensic services should not take precedence over health needs. It also says forensic examinations should be minimally invasive to the extent possible and that even a purely clinical procedure such as a bimanual examination (which also involves the insertion of two fingers into the vagina) is rarely medically necessary after sexual assault.

The Indian government should use its ongoing reform process for laws relating to sexual violence to prohibit the finger test and standardize the medical treatment and forensic examinations of survivors of sexual violence in line with the rights to health, privacy, dignity, and legal remedy, Human Rights Watch said. The government should introduce special programs to sensitize doctors, police, prosecutors, and judges to the rights of survivors, and set up multidisciplinary teams in every government hospital with doctors trained to be sensitive to survivors and with training and equipment to conduct forensic examinations in a manner that respects survivors’ rights.

Sample Testimony From the Report

The clerk told me a male doctor will conduct the test [forensic examination] and asked me whether that was ok. I said “yes.” But other than that, I did not know what they were going to do. I was so scared and nervous and praying all the time: “God, let this be over and let me get out of here fast.” I did not even know it was going to be like a delivery examination [an internal gynecological examination].

– Sandhya S. (name changed), adult rape survivor, Mumbai, August 2, 2010

In cases of very young girls – girls below [age] 12 or 13 – they [police officers and hospital staff] believe it is a case of sexual abuse. But if they are older, then they believe that the girl is trying to falsely frame someone. Their belief changes the way they address the survivors. They are very rude and disrespectful. They will say things like, “Why are you crying?” “You have only been raped.” “You are not dead.” “Go sit over there.” And order them around.

Dr. Rajat Mitra, director, Swanchetan, a nongovernmental organization that provides counseling services to rape survivors, Delhi, May 25, 2010

Where the defense takes the line that there was consent [to sexual intercourse], usually they also look to medical evidence for support. And if the medical report says anything about the finger test, then they draw it out in court – saying she was “habituated” so consented and is falsely implicating the accused.

– Dev D. (name changed to maintain anonymity as requested) a former public prosecutor, New Delhi, May 22, 2010

The finger test is relevant for the defense especially if the prosecutrix [term used to refer to a rape survivor during trial] case is that the woman is unmarried [as opposed to a married woman who is assumed to be “habituated to sex”]. Then if the medical report says that two fingers have passed, the defense can show that she is habituated. This shakes the testimony of the prosecutrix.

– Radha M. (name changed to protect identity), a former chief public prosecutor, location withheld, May 11, 2010

Sample Extracts From Judgments

“Though the girl was aged about 20 to 23 years and was unmarried but she was found to be “habituated to intercourse.” This makes her to be of doubtful character.”

– Jharkhand High Court, 2006

“She was complaining pain and the vagina was admitting 1½ finger [sic] …. From the medical report it is clear that the prosecutrix was not a girl of lax moral and she was not “habituated to sexual intercourse” and most probably, that was her first experience as the doctor has observed reddishness on her vagina and blood secretion and pain on touching the vagina.”

– Chhattisgarh High Court, 2007


Global norms on sexual harassment are necessary

Sunila Awasthi, partner, AZB & Partners  in The Economic Times , New Delhi

Sexual harassment policies at the workplace, usually relegated to the recesses of companies’ voluminous employment policies, if they exist at all, have come to the centre stage again with two recent embarrassing exits of senior CEOs of reputed multinational companies—Penguin and HP. While the two incidents occurred abroad, the occurrences should raise questions about whether Indian companies are equipped to deal with issues related with sexual harassment at the workplace.

The fact is that human resources departments in the industry have still to realise the importance of framing sexual harassment policies. In little more than a decade, the Indian workplace culture has changed dramatically as more and more women have entered, and continue to enter, the once male-dominant workplace.

In 1997 the Supreme Court of India handed down a landmark judgment which it said, in exercise of the powers under Article 226 of the Constitution of India, will be treated as the law of the land until the parliament enacts a statute to deal with sexual harassment at workplace. The Indian parliament, unfortunately, has yet to enact such a law. And unfortunately, in the absence of such a law, that Supreme Court judgment, in the case of Vishakha & Others vs State of Rajasthan, has hardly had any impact.

Any attention to issues relating to the work environment, including sexual harassment, has only been because of global best practices brought to India through the HR policies of Indian entities of large multinational companies. It is probably the first time that corporates have started explicitly declaring zero-tolerance for sexual harassment at the workplace in the company policy applicable to all employees.

Although the SC judgment of 1997 gave a wide definition of what constitutes sexual harassment at workplace, it isn’t difficult to assess what that is. An often ignored but interesting fact about such harassment is that when it occurs it does so because of the way people behave in the context of the larger societal culture. Identifying and specifying what is appropriate workplace behavior would make it easier for corporates and employees to stem inappropriate behaviour from the beginning. Indian corporates need to look at the issue from a socio-cultural perspective. A cultural shift has been the movement of an educated and skilled workforce from small towns and semi-urban areas to the metros due to rising work opportunities there.

The formal education system does not provide the requisite exposure to changes in lifestyle and behaviour that have occurred and continue to do so, due to increasing cosmopolitanism. For example, in interactions between men and women, what is ‘cool’ for someone brought up in an urban environment may be discomforting for a person not raised in such an atmosphere. Sometimes there is no recognition of the fact that comments about colleagues’ appearance and attire are inappropriate.

Be aware of what sexual harassment is and the related policies

In The Economic Times , August 22, 2010

The Supreme Court’s Vishakha Judgement of 1997 is now seen as a landmark in legal guidelines for cases of sexual harassment at the workplace. This judgement was delivered after Bhanwari Devi a development worker in a Rajasthan state run programme tried to take a stand against child marriage and was gang raped by members of the Gujjar community for her interference. In response to a petition by women’s groups after this, the Supreme Court laid down that, “each incidence of sexual harassment of women at workplace results in violation of the fundamental rights gender equality and the right to life and liberty.
While highlighting the significance of the Vishakha Judgement, Delhi-based lawyer Aparna Bhat, points out that since there’s no law yet in India on sexual harassment at the workplace, the Supreme Court’s guidance provide the only guidelines on how such cases need to be dealt with. “However, though these guidelines are effective in dealing with cases of sexual harassment in the public sector and governmental organisations, in the case of the private sector a lot of grey areas remain. For private organizations having committees to look into cases on sexual harassment at the workplace is voluntary. Often there is lack of knowledge and awareness within the organization on such committees and policies even if they exist,” she says.
The lack of awareness on guidelines against sexual harassment at the workplace is a common complaint of women in various organizations—both private and public sector. “Organisations need to have a briefing session for new recruits – both male and female—on a code of conduct in the workplace. This will set the tone for acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. There should be avenues for addressing complaints, checking on their veracity and for taking quick remedial action thereafter,” says Poornima Shenoy, president, India Semiconductor Association.

Besides a better legal framework, the need for women in senior positions to become champions for safety and security at the workplace is also necessary. “Legal provisions are necessary but not sufficient to address this issue. Until there are senior women in executive positions who can be role models and who are able to participate in defining recognition and resolution of such cases, women who are being harassed are unlikely to bring the cases to light,” says Gita Dang, founder director of HR consultancy Talent Advisory services. With a larger number of women in India joining the workforce in different industry segments the definition of sexual harassment, too, is changing. The high-tech face of sexual harassment, for instance, is now having an impact on Indian offices.

The women in the BPO industry have their own set of issues. In 2007, after a huge outcry from women’s organisations and the state women’s commission, the Karnataka government withdrew a controversial notification banning night shift for women employees. “The fact that sexual harassment is seen as a human rights violation is a positive step in the right direction. It is also important that the employer is accountable for the safety of women at the workplace, following the Vishakha Judgement,” says Soma Sengupta, the founding director of Sanhita, an NGO that works as a resource centre on issues of sexual harassment of women at the workplace in eastern India. It also runs a helpline for women who are victims of such harassment. “We have women from all walks of life contacting us on the helpline with various kinds of problems. Such cases are on the increase these days,” Ms Sengupta adds.

India Inc is waking up to the menace of sexual harassment

In the Economic TimesAugust 22, 2010

The recent expulsions of Penguin’s Canada chief executive David Davidar and Hewlett-Packard’s global CEO Mark Hurd brought to focus the grave issue of sexual harassment at the workplace. While globally, there is a definite mechanism followed to counter the menace, corporate policies in Indian companies are now slowly beginning to take shape. Industry is reinforcing the need for clear and stringent policies to deal with sexual harassment cases. Some of them were the import of globalisation, with foreign companies bringing in the same workplace laws into India for their Indian employees, while some companies introduced them to tune HR policies At softdrink maker PepsiCo’s India offices, a sexual harassment policy is in place for the last six years now. According to Pavan Bhatia, ED-HR, PepsiCo India, the policy is based as per Supreme Court’s guidelines on sexual harassment. There is also a committee for the issue consisting of 12 senior management executives at Pepsi, in case someone lodges a complaint. The committee appoints at least five members to duly investigate the matter and takes decisions accordingly. Those found guilty can also lose their job at the company. “There are various ways that one can register a complaint. Either one can directly write a mail to the CEO, HR head or the functional head and we also have a Women’s Council, through which one can approach the management,” he says. Similarly, LG Electronics India has a permanent committee of three females members on sexual harassment. While one representative is from the senior management, the other two are from mid-to-junior levels of management. Every year, the company invites volunteers to join the committee but also adds that it has not faced a situation where their services could be used. At least 25% of the company’s managerial staff are women, while at the manufacturing side, of the 1,500 employees, about 15% are females.

Although Maruti Suzuki claims to have had no instance of sexual harassment in the company for the last 25 years, they have formulated a robust Sexual Harassment Policy which will be announced to the company employees in the coming days. “This policy will comprehensively cover all the aspects of workplace discipline and safeguard employee interests,” says S Y Siddiqui, Managing Executive Officer-Administration (HR, IT, Finance and Corporate) at Maruti Suzuki India. But despite such punitive measures being taken, there still is a lot of hesitation among victims to bring such cases to the fore. Supreme Court Lawyer Pavan Duggal highlights some concerning statistics. “For every 500 instances of harassment, only 50 get reported and only one gets registered as an FIR. I get many cases a month on this issue, particularly sexual harassment at the workplace, and indeed the number of cases has risen appreciably.” Duggal recalls a case where some obscene pictures of a female employee were recently posted across the office by none other than her superior. “She first complained to him, having no other recourse, but he himself was the perpetrator. He also kept track of her office mail to know who she was attracted to, and all her personal details. He had no right to do that, and faces three years in jail with a Rs 5 lakh fine. That is, if he gets convicted,” he adds.