IN A recent order, a special court in Mumbai sentenced a 23-year-old man to six months in jail for saying, “I love you, you love me”, at a railway platform in Kurla. Last month, a court in Yavatmal similarly sentenced two men to six months’ imprisonment observing that saying “Hi sexy, hello sexy” amounted to intentionally insulting the modesty of the victim. The court further said such offences were increasing nowadays and required to be strictly dealt with.
Experts say these forms of sexual harassment rampantly experienced by women in public spaces are finding a response by the criminal justice system more frequently with special Acts, such as the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012, and the Criminal Law Amendment, 2013, in force. “When my daughter told me about the incident of harassment she faced while going to school, we decided to not ignore it and approach the police. She told us that a youngster would pass comments and ask her to be friends with him even after she refused. We did not want it to affect her,” said the parent of a minor girl.
One of the investigators in the Kurla incident, too, said while the general perception was that offences of such nature did not result in police complaints, the court order showed otherwise and should create awareness for more women to come forward if they faced harassment in public places, including railway stations. “Even during trainings imparted in schools, police personnel recommend that girls should come forward with any form of sexual harassment they are facing, rather than ignoring it. It can worsen into more violent harassment,” said special prosecutor Usha Jadhav.
The J S Verma committee appointed in the aftermath of the gangrape of a 23-year-old physiotherapist in Delhi on December 16, 2012, had referred to a Supreme Court order calling ‘eve-teasing’ a “euphemism”. “Sexual assault degenerates to its gravest form of rape beginning with uncontrolled sexual harassment in milder forms, which remain uncontrolled. It has to be therefore curbed at the initial stage,” the committee had said in 2013. It further recommended that since the then existing law did not find criminal prohibition of non-penetrative forms of sexual assault, “aside from inappropriate references to outraging the modesty of women in sections 354 and 509 of the Indian Penal Code”, it should be enacted in another form. In 2013, provisions of Section 354 were expanded to include offences like voyeurism (Section 354C) and stalking (Section 354D).
“The earlier provisions in law for sexual harassment before the amendment were very broad. They said everything and nothing at the same time. With POCSO Act and the Criminal Law Amendment, there are specific provisions including sub-sections in Section 354, which gives a more nuanced understanding of sexual assault. It has helped the police and the courts to understand the gradation of the offence,” said Persis Sidhva, advocate with NGO Majlis Legal Centre, which runs Rahat, a victim support programme.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau, in 2015 there were a total of 84,222 offences of assault on women with intent to outrage her modesty with the highest in Maharashtra at 8,049 cases, an increase of 0.2 per cent from the previous year. The number of cases of sexual harassment on minors under POCSO Act in 2015 stood at 8,390, with Maharashtra topping the charts with 2,468 cases. Under Section 354 A (sexual harassment), 1,043 cases were registered in the state, while there were 77 cases under 354B (disrobing a woman) and 51 and 422 cases under sections 354 C and D, respectively.
Experts said the awareness regarding the seriousness of such offences still had scope for improvement. A few months ago, for instance, a court handed out a one-day sentence to a man for repeatedly stalking a school girl. “The law has changed but there needs to be much more awareness about the provisions among the public. From our experience, victims continue to feel apprehensive about approaching the police. In some cases, police too may not encourage them to file an FIR. In society, if these offences are considered normal, not so serious or are not seen as harassment at all, there will continue to be an apprehension to take a legal recourse,” said Pravin Khandpasole, director of Disha, an organisation based in Amravati, working on creating a legal, social and policy framework for victims.
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