The state should not forget the human rights perspective while dealing with a victim of sexual violence. It should not doubly, trebly victimise her.
Women do not walk in a state of perpetual consent. But women do seem to labour under a delusion that it is safe for them to walk in public spaces, to travel in buses and trains. It obviously is not. They can be raped. It is difficult to understand rape. Rape is not about chastity or virginity. Long before these concepts were constructed, long before the institution of marriage was founded, a man raped a woman whenever he broke her sexual autonomy without her saying “yes.” It is a violation of her right to equality and her right to live with dignity which “We” promised ourselves when we gave to ourselves the Constitution. Surely women are included in the “We” of the Preamble, aren’t they?
Rape is the destruction of dignity through invasion of another person’s body without her consent. I use the word “her”, though the victim of this violence can be a child, a woman or a man. The anatomy of rape is common to all. But I will continue to use the pronoun “her”, since the majority of victims of sexual violence are female. Rape is a deliberate negation of the right over one’s body.
This right is born with us. It does not require a development of maturity or the consciousness of one’s body to acquire the right. So a girl child who is raped when she is 11 months old does not suffer less, nor is the crime less dark and bloody because the child does not know that she has the right not to be invaded. The consent that is required to make the sexual act not a rape must be understood as an active assent to the act. The consent cannot be presumed merely because a woman does not say “no”. She might not have said “no” because she was paralysed by fear, manacled by coercion or pounded by force. She might not have said no, because she was mentally damaged, incapable of making a decision in this regard; she might have been an infant, or disabled from moving because of physical incapacity. Yet it is rape. Only it is blacker if there is such a colour. It is the invasion of a woman who cannot say no.
Act of subjugation
It strips the victim of her dignity, it is intended to. It is an exertion of power, an act of subjugation, a statement that divests the victim of her right of control over herself and renders her an object. It is meant to objectify her. The dilution of the horror, by using words like “he lost control” is unjustified and is an insult to a woman. The violator does not lose control, but exerts control through the act of unspeakable violence.
In the Prosecutor v. Jean Paul Akayesu, the International Tribunal held that rape is a form of aggression, the central elements of which cannot be captured in a mechanical description of objects and body parts. It noted “the cultural sensitivities involved in public discussion of intimate matters and recalled the painful reluctance and inability of witnesses to disclose graphic anatomical details of the sexual violence they endured.” It was intended to reconstitute the law’s perception of women’s experience of sexual violence.
In a sensitisation programme for judicial officers, an exercise was given which would give a clue to the rape complainant’s feelings in court. All judicial officers were asked to close their eyes and imagine the experience of their first union with their loved one. Then they were asked to narrate it to the colleague sitting on their right. They were horrified at this intrusion of their privacy. Then the trainers asked them: “If you cannot narrate a pleasant sexual experience to a friend without inhibition, how do you expect a frightened woman in a strange court hall to narrate fluently, in the presence of a battery of hostile lawyers, her devastating experience of sexual violence?” The officers had no answer.
But what is the reality? She is broken by having to repeat the incidence of rape again and again. “Madam, what was he wearing at the time of the occurrence? Did his tee shirt have a collar or no?” Oh yes, she can surely recall in vivid freeze-frames of “the occurrence.” And who will save her if she falters just once in the witness box? “See your Honour, the accused was wearing a blue striped chaddy, but she says red … totally unreliable, Your Honour.” The Supreme Court has given strict guidelines on how her evidence should be weighed, and how her complaint should be assessed.
But a poor child who does not know an Ambassador from a Fiat was disbelieved by the trial court, until the Supreme Court came down with all its majesty to the rescue of the child and noted that the prosecutrix was a village girl studying in class 10 and her ignorance of the car brand, was irrelevant (State of Punjab v Gurmit Singh 1996 (2) SCC 384.)
In the Amnesty International publication, “Rape and sexual violence — human rights law and standards in international courts,” we read how the human rights perspective must never be forgotten while dealing with sexual violence.
Sexual autonomy cannot be understood outside the umbrella of human rights. Its violation must be criminalised. The report says, “Unfortunately, however, sexual autonomy is frequently conflated with narrow views of ‘consent’ under domestic criminal law which do not capture the reality of how acts of rape and sexual violence are committed … Sexual autonomy and consent are two distinct concepts. The concept of ‘consent’ as used in domestic criminal law imports a notion of individual choice, typically without a consideration of the reality of abuse of power (whether evidenced through physical force, or other forms of coercion) and other factual conditions that may prevail before, during and perhaps after the sexual acts in question. A consideration of whether an individual was able to exercise sexual autonomy, by contrast, takes into account the overall dynamic and environment surrounding those sexual acts and how these had an impact on the victim’s ability to make a genuine choice.”
A woman who is raped goes through a variety of feelings like denial, self-hate, grief, degradation, suicidal impulse and more. She falters in her narration, oh yes, she does, but not because she is a liar, but because the act of rape not only inflicts physical harm but also incalculable emotional and psychological harm. Chemical changes take place in her brain because of the trauma. She may go into a fantasy that someone will rescue her from this nightmare. Post-rape, she lives in a smoke world of truth and untruth, denial and depression, nothing is the same any more. She is screaming on the inside “please, please put the clock back.” This is just a short, incomplete statement of what is happening on the inside.
What is happening on the outside? The whole family is devastated, it even looks at her as if she somehow brought it on herself. “Why did you go there?,” “I told you not to wear that” and so on. So the woman wonders if the first enemy is the family. It is not in every case that the woman actually lodges a complaint, because she and her family know what will follow the complaint is worse. It is hell. It is not necessary to give the details of the experience on the way to the police station and inside the precincts thereof. The world looks at her as if she carries a stain on her all the time. She may never be allowed to forget the occurrence. So will a woman lie that she was raped?
The Amnesty International report reminds us that women and girls are not “likely to make false accusations of rape and sexual violence. This is a particularly irrational stereotype as women and girl complainants usually have very little to gain and everything to lose by making allegations of rape, there is rarely an incentive for them to lie; many complainants pursue their search for truth and justice at enormous cost to themselves, in terms of stigma and rejection by their families and communities.”
In this harsh reality, society and especially the state and courts must remember that they shall not doubly and trebly victimise her, nor raise a cacophony of distrust. It will only silence the voices against this horror.
(The writer is a former judge of the Madras High Court and Chairman of the Intellectual Property Appellate Board.)