The "R" word is once again in the news. Women are raped every day, even every hour. But the crime is compounded when the rape of a woman becomes a public spectacle. Last week, everyone including clerics and the local panchayat of a village in Muzaffarnagar district in Uttar Pradesh had an opinion on what should happen to a woman raped by her own father-in-law. She is lying, said some. Even if she is telling the truth, she cannot remain married to her husband, said others. She must marry her rapist, said a third set of people. Some of this appalling drama was even played out in front of television cameras for the entire country to watch and comment. Should such a ghastly incident be the stuff of "reality" television?

The norm that a raped woman's identity should not be revealed is being openly flouted, principally by the electronic media but also by print. Everyone knows the name of the woman in the village in Muzaffarnagar district.
 •  CEHAT SAFE Kit, MS Word, 28 Kb
It is really hard to believe that 25 years ago, women's groups in this country fought for, and succeeded to some extent, in changing the laws dealing with rape. They drew attention to the hideous crime of custodial rape. Following this, in another case where a man was beaten to death in police custody and his wife molested, the courts laid down norms prohibiting women from being taken to police stations after sunset and before sunrise. Also, when women are arrested or interrogated, a policewoman must be present. In the last couple of years, one of the most regressive provisions of the rape law, that allowed the raped woman's previous sexual history to be used as evidence by the defence, has now been nullified.

Despite all this and more, we are almost back to square one. The Supreme Court decided recently that in exceptional circumstances, women could be taken to a police station at night even if women police are not available. And the same applies to their interrogation. Although the basic law still remains, allowing such an exception can lead to misuse.

Violations by the media

The norm that a raped woman's identity should not be revealed is being openly flouted, principally by the electronic media but also by print. Everyone knows the name of the woman in the village in Muzaffarnagar district. The woman gang-raped in Gujarat, whose trial is currently being heard in Mumbai, is also a household name. There is no privacy for these women. And if ever there is justice, there is no guarantee that they will ever be able to pick up the threads of their lives again.

There is an added dimension to these cases, particularly the one in Muzaffarnagar. It is the communal angle. Just because the panchayat in this instance was Muslim, there is an unspoken assumption that Muslims in general endorse such actions. Yet when Hindu panchayats in Haryana mete out similar injustice to women who choose to defy tradition, it is projected as an exception and not a rule amongst Hindus. Every instance of conservatism amongst Muslims is highlighted in a way that reinforces prevailing prejudices. How little we hear of the converse, of the changes that are taking place amongst Muslim women, the many who are shining in academics and going into careers never dreamed of by their mothers.

And what about justice? The conviction rate for rapes is appalling, just four per cent. The blame lies largely with shoddy investigation and collection of evidence. Barring custodial rapes, the onus of proving rape rests with the victim, and, therefore, with the prosecutor. Here, the role of those who examine the rape victim, and collect evidence sent for testing to forensic laboratories, is crucial. Yet doctors in public hospitals are not given standard operating procedures for examining rape victims. Even the best forensic laboratory can do nothing if the basic raw material, the evidence, is either missing or not collected in a proper manner.

Assault evidence kit

It is commendable, therefore, that a non-governmental organisation, Centre for Enquiry in Health and Allied Themes (CEHAT) in Mumbai, has taken the initiative to prepare a Sexual Assault Evidence Kit, or SAFE kit. This contains a checklist of all that the doctor must do when examining a rape victim and how to collect the different samples for evidence. The importance of such procedures cannot be over-emphasised.

Doctors also need to be sensitised so that they do not further traumatise the victim. For this, the basic text used to teach forensics needs drastic revision as has been documented by advocate Flavia Agnes. Her study of the standard forensics textbooks, used by doctors and even by lawyers and judges, revealed that they contained deep-rooted anti-women biases. If the examining doctor is so vital to a rape case, surely the first step must be to ensure that he is gender sensitive.

CEHAT and other groups also urge that nurses be trained to examine rape victims, as is done in many Western countries. They point out that quite often a rape victim will feel more comfortable being examined by a woman or to at least have a woman or member of her family present during examination. Also, in our public hospitals, the victim is made to go from one department to another for different examinations. Surely, given what the woman has been through, hospitals can ensure that such harassment is minimised.

And finally the doctor or nurse examining the victim must be more than just clinical. They must care for the human being who is in front of them. Ultimately laws and procedures are only as effective as the individuals who implement them.