New Delhi [India],Mar.29 : Seeking to bridge gaps in police response to victims of rape and sexual assault, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) convened a National Conference on 'First Response, Good Policing and Rape Survivors' in collaboration with the British High Commission earlier today.
The conference focused on ways to improve the police response to women, particularly to rape survivors, with a focus on New Delhi and Mumbai.
It brought together senior police officers, civil society, lawyers, journalists, academics, and independent commissions to share knowledge, take stock of good practices, and chart out a way forward to address challenges.
Discussions revolved around the initiatives being taken by the police in Delhi and Mumbai to improve women's safety and the key interventions required to support rape survivors.
"The biggest challenges within the police system at present are limited training, low women representation in the ranks and patriarchic values within the system.
I also feel that the police have been used very badly in our country, politically. The good officers who are in the position to lead are sidelined. There is no political will in this country to keep women safe. It is never an election issue," said Kanwaljit Deol, Director General of Police (Retd.) Stressing on 'an institutional bias' in the police against different communities, Vrinda Grover, prominent lawyer and human rights activist asserted, "We need more women in police and rigorous training in evidence collection and investigation.
Without competent investigation, it is impossible to get a conviction." She further underscored that though there was a definite increase in reporting of crimes relating to sexual violence, cases of sexual assaults within domestic lives and in offices were underreported even now.
"A victim becomes a survivor only when justice is done, conviction takes place and he/she is rehabilitated.
The legal community and civil society should join hands to protect the dignity of the complainants, and guide victims through the legal processes and help with their rehabilitation," said Flavia Agnes, lawyer and co-founder of the Mumbai-based NGO, Majlis.
Discussants agreed that no meaningful change was possible on the ground without addressing women's vulnerability in availing justice.
The need for an overhaul in the attitude of police towards the general public and the inclusion of women in policing were highlighted as central issues.
Sanjay Beniwal, Special Commissioner for Women's Safety in the Delhi Police, recommended bringing in changes in the school curricula to teach boys in their formative years to respect and protect women.
"Men must realise that being manly is not tolerating, not perpetrating, not supporting any attacks on women.
From the police perspective, the biggest change that has come after the Nirbhaya incident is that no questions are asked when a victim files a complaint and the registration of FIR is not restricted by jurisdiction.
There is a growing realization that if handled correctly, victims of sexual assault can bounce back," he said.
Fareen Malik, Member, Delhi Commission for Women, highlighted the key interventions undertaken by the agency.
"The Minister for Women and Child Development, Maneka Gandhi had announced funds for the creation of One-Stop Centres in each district of Delhi.
I am happy to reveal that we will have these operational very soon. Delhi will also have six more forensic labs." Calling for greater sensitisation of personnel at police training academies, Bharti Sharma, Honourary Secretary of the New Delhi-based Shakti Shalini, said, "Police and civil society response to sexual violence is currently focused on rape, due to which other sexual offences like fondling and touching are often overlooked.
It is vital to acknowledge that young boys can also be victims of sexual abuse, and their complaints must be treated sensitively." Nayreen Daruwalla, Programme Director of Mumbai-based SNEHA, emphasized that public systems and communities should take on the onus of addressing gender-based violence.
"Partnerships between the police, academic institutions and NGOs can also help in monitoring and recording cases of violence against women and girls.
Police also need to integrate prevention strategies into their work," she said. In a new initiative, CHRI also released a short film, "24 Hours" on the work and challenges before the police and other responders in the crucial first 24 hours after a rape survivor comes to the police with her complaint.
Inaugurating the film, Andrew Mackenzie, Deputy Head (Political and Bilateral Affairs) at the British High Commission said, "Globally, one in three women are beaten or sexually abused once in their lifetimes.
It is our hope that institutions will be able to use this film to shape their trainings and procedures and design the best possible response while engaging with rape survivors.
We really feel by working together and putting women and girls at the heart of our work will we be able to tackle issues of violence against women." Among the other concerns raised in the conference were the need for police accountability and sensitisation, systemic impediments to women's access to justice, dominant patriarchy in the society and legal processes and remedies.