Harassment is not the easiest of crimes to define with precision. Kerala Excise Commissioner Rishiraj Singh, an IPS officer, believes if a boy stares at a girl for more than 14 seconds, it is sufficient to call for an FIR, lock up the culprit. The problem is, there is no law that subscribes to Singh’s definition — mercifully so. The officer may well have made the statement with good intent. But his viewpoint, besides betraying poor understanding of the law, points to an approach that is unlikely to help in dealing with crimes against women. It is an approach that all too often takes resort to the quick-fix measure, and invasive policing, as the solution.
There are no instant solutions to the grave problem of violence against women. In the Nirbhaya case in Delhi, December 2012, and the widespread civil society protests it touched off, a three-member panel was set up under Justice J.S. Verma with a mandate to examine the existing laws dealing with sexual violence and to propose amendments if necessary. The Verma panel’s recommendations influenced the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013. The panel rightly looked at sexual offences as a violation of constitutional rights. However, many of its suggestions veered towards loose definitions and ill thought-through and even illiberal solutions. While creating an enabling legal environment for victims of sexual crimes is critical, work also needs to be done to educate and sensitise people about gender rights, or to redesign public spaces, for instance, to make them more women-friendly. Conservative social values that judge women through patriarchal norms need to make way for a rights-based discourse. For that, the response to such crimes must go beyond mere outrage and the illiberal clamour for stricter laws. The excessive focus on the severity of punishment must not be allowed to become a stand-in for a more thoughtful and meaningful agenda for change.
The police force continues to be lopsided in favour of men whereas evidence suggests that a force that gives more representation to women can make both police and the citizenry more sensitive to gender issues. With more women stepping out of homes to join both the formal and informal work force and with the nature of work itself changing, it is important that the approach to crime against women goes beyond populist responses.