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An Insidious Crime

Sexual harassment of women in public places is a crime, not a harmless pastime.


Every other day, the media reports instances of sexual harassment including young women being physically attacked by stalkers in public places. Last month, the Supreme Court (SC), in response to a petition, noted that there was no uniform law to deal with this crime. It directed all states and union territories to depute female plain-clothes police at railway and bus stations, cinema theatres, shopping malls, beaches, parks and other public places, to set up close circuit cameras at strategic places and to make helplines available. The Court also noted that this crime violates women’s constitutional rights under Articles 14, 15 and 21 to live with dignity and honour, and failure to deal with it would have disastrous consequences. 
While the SC’s directions are welcome as they draw attention to a crime that is inappropriately termed as “eve teasing”, it is debatable whether the remedy of bringing in another law, or higher levels of policing will necessarily deal with the increasing incidence of sexual harassment in public places. The SC mentioned the responsibility of passers-by to complain to the nearest police station and call women’s helplines when they witness such cases. Yet, this is easier said than done. Complaints to the police on such matters rarely elicit a positive response. And standing up to the culprits can be physically dangerous. Mumbai’s high-profile case of two young men who were stabbed to death when they protested the harassment of their female friends by a group of men outside a restaurant last October is a textbook example. Despite sustained and wide media coverage, a fast track court is yet to take up the trial after more than a year. 
A phenomenon that is so deeply entangled within our society’s cultural and social expectations of women’s behaviour and the accompanying attitude of seeing the woman not as the victim but as the cause of the crime against her cannot be tackled just by another law. Significantly, the SC’s directions were given while allowing an appeal by the Tamil Nadu government against the acquittal of an inebriated policeman accused of harassing a woman in a public place. The state government had enacted the Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Eve Teasing Ordinance in 1998 (later converted into an Act) following the death of a young woman student in Chennai after she was harassed by a group of young men on motorcycles. Yet, clearly this law was not strong enough to prosecute the policeman in question. 
It is obvious that laws alone cannot guarantee women’s safety. If that were the case, India would be the safest country for women given the number of laws and ordinances dealing with gender justice. As it is, the Indian Penal Code (IPC) already has Sections 354 and 509 that are applicable to sexual harassment of women in public places. Despite this, the police are unwilling to take this crime seriously and use these sections of the IPC. Some state governments have evolved strategies to deal with the problem. For example, Assam has recently deployed the first batch of trained and armed women commandos, “Virangana” in Guwahati to prevent such harassment. The Uttar Pradesh government has started a dedicated helpline, the Madhya Pradesh government has said that harassers will not be given passports or driving licences and the Patna (Bihar) police have set up a Romeo Mobile patrol. 
Some of these strategies might work as deterrents. But in the long run, they will prove inadequate because of societal attitudes that dictate what is “appropriate” for women and social conditioning that makes women avoid confrontation rather than fighting for their right to move without fear or hindrance in public. Women fear, and rightly so, that if they object or protest, they would have to suffer even worse forms of violence – such as acid or physical attacks. Additionally, the fact that the law does not work even in cases where people have been killed for objecting to such harassment makes women even more cautious than they already are. Furthermore, instead of finding sympathy and support, young women in particular are constantly told how they should dress, how they should avoid being out at night, and how they should behave outside their homes. Laws do not change such attitudes. So long as Indian society refuses to grant women the right to access and use the public space as equals to men, they will continue to be at the receiving end of harassment and violence. A society that finds it acceptable to treat women in public spaces as objects of sexual desire can have little to say for itself.

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