What are the measures taken by Indian government courts to protect women?

Measures taken by government courts

Three government measures taken with regard to crimes against women are worth mentioning.

First, a bill entitled "The Prevention of Barbarous and Beastly Cruelty Against Women Bill, 1995" was introduced in the Rajya Sabha on December 1, 1995, seeking capital punishment against those who perpetrate barbarous and beastly cruelties on women. The Bill states that such offences be declared cognisable and non-bailable and should be tried in special courts.

While introducing the Bill, Mrs. Saroj Khaparde hoped that deterrent punishment for such crimes would reduce the number of atrocities against women.

Some of the acts listed as being beastly and cruel include killing a woman by battering, strangulating, or by other means after committing rape on her, killing a woman and disposing of her body by burning or by other means, burning of a woman alive leading to her death, killing a woman by gang-rape, and committing rape on a pregnant woman resulting in her death. This bill however could not be passed.

Secondly, the Supreme Court gave a decision on 17 January, 1996 that rape cases be tried as a rule in camera to protect victims from facing humiliation in the witness box during trial.

Trial in camera would not only protect the self-respect of the victim of crime but it is also likely to improve the quality of evidence of a prosecution because she would not be so hesitant or bashful to depose frankly, as she might be in an open court under the gaze of the public.

The judges declared that an open hearing in such cases should only be held in exceptional cases. It was also declared that it would not be lawful to print or publish any matter in relation to the proceedings in the case, except with the previous permission of the courts.

This would spare embarrassment caused to the victim of sex crime. It was also suggested that as far as possible, sexual assault cases be tried by lady judges. Lastly, the courts should avoid disclosing the name of the prosecution in their orders to save embarrassment to the victim.

Thirdly, Mahila Courts have been established in Delhi to try cases of crimes against women. Four such courts were set up in 1994.

The atmosphere in Mahila Courts is not aggressive or charged as in other courts where women victims have to face a volley of questions from the defence counsel. Normally, it takes years to impart justice to a victim in ordinary courts, but a Mahila Court takes only a few months.

The rationale behind the setting up of these court is: (i) to lend a sympathetic ear by female judges to women victims who are unable to depose truthfully and fearlessly before male judges; (ii) to deliver speedy trials to women as Mahila Courts are to deal with cases pertaining to women only.

The important characteristics of Mahila Courts are: (1) These courts take up cases of women only. (2) The judges are women. (3) These courts try cases of Indian Penal Code (IPC) only of (a) outraging the modesty of a woman (Section 359), (b) kidnapping (Section 363), (c) criminal breach of trust pertaining to not returning streedhan (Section 406), and (d) cruelty of any sort inflicted by the husband or his relatives (Section 498). (4) These courts have predominantly all women teams, including women prosecutors. Only the accused and the lawyers are likely to be men.

However, the Mahila Courts have been criticised on the following grounds:

(1) These courts are unconstitutional and unwarranted. Even the President of the All India Lawyers Forum for Civil Liberties (AILFCL) has described the very nomenclature of these courts as misleading and violative of the constitution.

(2) The courts would be biased in favour of women and the accused would inevitably be treated severely by the female judges and the prosecutors.

(3) The courts are not Mahila Courts in the real sense of the term. Public prosecutors, stenographers, and readers are still male employees.

(4) The number of Mahila Courts is not adequate enough. Three-fourths of cases involving women victims are still tried by male judges.

(5) Keeping in view the large number of cases, the strength of judges is quite insufficient.

The counter-arguments against the above criticisms are:

(1) Allegation of gender bias against women judges is baseless. Mahila Courts are not partial. There is no question of taking sides. A judge is a judge. It hardly matters whether the judge is a man or a woman.

(2) Women judges in fact create a sense of confidence in the victim to come out openly against the accused and his/her counterparts.

(3) The disposal of cases is speedier. In many cases, women judges have given less severe punishments to the old accused on the ground that there is no point in giving a ten-year sentence to someone who is between 70 and 80 years of age as he might not survive the entire sentence.

What is needed along with Mahila Courts is: (1) curbing loopholes in the trial process; (2) curbing corruption; (3) providing for speedy disposal of cases; and (4) interrogation of a female victim by a woman police officer, preferably in the presence of her relatives and under camera surveillance.